Equal Justice Under the Law: The Case for Cocaine Sentencing Reformby Andrew Wilkes 04-22-2009
A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, but an accurate weight is his delight. (Proverbs 11:1)
I call upon all people of goodwill to support H.R. 1459, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. Senator Jim Webb recently sounded the alarm about the brokenness of our prison systems. His pronouncement, of course, is nothing new, but it lends visible and much-needed support to the cause of prison reform. And, to be sure, altering cocaine sentencing policy lies at heart of prison reform.
But why, inquiring citizens ask, should we use every available means at our disposal to contact our respective members of the House Judiciary and House Committee on Energy and Commerce and express support for H.R. 1459? Briefly phrased, cocaine sentencing disparities disproportionately impact minorities, interrogating our national commitment to equal justice under the law. H.R. 1459 aims to alter the Controlled Substances Act and eliminate two things. First, it aims to “eliminate increased penalties for cocaine offenses where the cocaine involved is cocaine base.” And secondly, it aspires to eradicate “minimum mandatory imprisonment penalties for cocaine offenses.” The title of H.R. 1459, Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act, assumes that a gross inequity exists within current sentencing policy (the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, PL 99-570, to be exact). The inequity, referred to by many as the “100:1 quantity ratio”, means that “it takes 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger … harsh five and ten-year mandatory minimum sentences.” According to a report by the 2009 Criminal Justice Transition Coalition, the disparity, despite being “facially neutral,” unevenly penalizes minorities.
If we are to “achieve our country,” as the eloquent James Baldwin once said, then policies championed by the White House must not unfairly punish those who go to the crackhouse. If we are to achieve our country, let us call on Vice President Joe Biden, a repentant architect of this sentencing policy, and the White House Office of Urban Policy to proudly and persistently support this bill. All too often, the penal structure of our criminal justice is a modern-day example of unbalanced scales. Although not always in intent, cocaine sentencing consistently—and adversely—impacts minorities in ways that are so horrifically disproportionate that the words of the black bard Tupac Shakur come to mind: “Lady Liberty needs glasses/ And so does Mrs. Justice by her side.” Let us move from aspiring to equal justice under the law to its actuality, and achieve our country by supporting H.R. 1459.
Shoutout to James Rucker and colorofchange.org for being a drum major for justice on this critical issue.
Andrew Wilkes is a former Sojourners policy and organizing intern and second-year student at Princeton Theological Seminary.