Today was very educational, or at least it will be if you read the rest of my post. A caller at 32:35 asked about The War on Cops, a book by Heather Mac Donald that I had mentioned previously. His question led me to a little light research.



Crack vs. Powder Cocaine (from The War on Cops, Heather Mac Donald

Characteristics of crack vs. powder cocaine

  • Crack is a more potent high which, because it is small and easily digestible, makes an intense high available to people with very little money. Young male crack dealers use guns to assert and defend their territories, which consist of street corners. Crack, homicide and assault go hand in hand.
  • Powder cocaine is brought into the country under the aegis of drug kingpins and transacted in quiet telephone calls, i.e., nonviolent.
  • Powder cocaine is imported, crack is cooked up locally. Federal crack enforcement wasn’t about stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the country; it was about stopping urban violence and that was coming from street dealers.

Differences between federal and state prisons

  • At state level, only 13 states distinguish between crack and powder cocaine sentences, and the differences are much smaller than the federal courts.
  • Drug war opponents focus almost exclusively on federal prison because the disparity of sentencing is greater, but federal prisons house only about 12% of prisoners nationwide.

Impact on the black community

  • Black leaders (not white) were the first to sound the alarm about crack and push for stiff penalties. The 1986 bill containing crack/powder distinction won majority support among black congressmen.
  • The large national spike in violence in the mid-1980s was largely due to the crack trade. Its victims were overwhelmingly black inner-city residents.

Disparities in sentencing

  • Before 2010, 5 grams of crack carried 5-year minimum sentence in federal courts; 500 grams of power the same. In 2010, Congress upped “allowable” crack amount to 28 grams.
  • Crack defendants are more likely to be black. In 2006, 81% of federal crack defendants were black, 27% were white.
  • In 2006, 4,495 of crack sellers tried federally were black. In terms of prison population, convicted crack sellers make up approximately 0.8% of all black prisoners in state and federal facilities and 0.5% of black prisoners overall (including county and city jails). I.e., disparate sentencing does not explain blacks’ overrepresentation in prison.
  • From 1996-2000, federal court sentenced more powder traffickers (23,743) than crack traffickers (23,121).
  • Federal methamphetamine-trafficking penalties were identical to crack (5 grams = mandatory 5 year sentence) until 2010; now they are much more severe.
  • In 2006, the 5,391 meth convictions were 54% white, 39% Hispanic, 2% black. No one calls federal meth laws anti-Hispanic or anti-white.

Underlying causes for disparities in sentencing

  • Crack traffickers with only a modest criminal history who didn’t injure others or have a gun when arrested can escape mandatory federal sentences as long as they don’t lie to the government about their offense.
  • In 2006, 15.4% of crack defendants qualified for this safety valve provision compared with 48.4% of powder defendants. Crack sellers are more likely to have more than modest criminal histories and to have or use weapons.
  • It’s a myth that drug disparities are the cause of the rising incarceration rates in state prisons (where 88% of prisoners are housed). Between 1980 to 1990, 36% of growth was due to violent crimes, 33% to drugs. From 1990 to 2000, violent offenders counted for 53% of the census increase.
  • It’s a myth that drug enforcement is the cause of rising racial disparities in prison. In 2006, blacks were 37.5% of state prisoners. Removing drug prisoners from that population drops it to 37%.


Racism-fueled Arrests

Every year the Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics conducts the National Crime Victimization Survey of about 160,000 people. Data on race of offender is collected. Victims have no reason to lie about the race of their offender. As far back as 1978, arrest rates match crime rates, i.e., the reason blacks are overrepresented in prison for violent crime is because they are overrepresented as offenders. Relationship to percentage of blacks in overall population is irrelevant.

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