Thursday, June 21, 2007

Weighing justice: Two local leaders give their opinion on mandatory sentencing for crack

Wednesday, Jun 06, 2007 - 12:16 AM Updated: 10:45 AM

By Jim Cook
On the scales of justice, five grams of crack cocaine weigh the same as 500 grams of powder cocaine.In 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which gave drug dealers in possession of 5 grams of crack, and who were tried and convicted in federal court, the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as dealers caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine. The stated intent of the law was to stop an epidemic of crack use, which lawmakers believed was creating havoc in the black community. Some black leaders say the law has caused the very problem it was intended to fix – destroying the black community by locking up a generation in need of counseling instead of captivity. People on the other side of the debate say the law has halted the crack epidemic and because of the link between crack and violent crime, removed a potentially dangerous segment of society from the general population.
Do you think that it's fair that distributing five grams of crack cocaine carries the same mandatory minimum federal sentence as distributing five grams of powder cocaine? Yes No

Recently, the Dothan Eagle spoke to two men with differing opinions on the subject, the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow and Houston-Henry County District Attorney Doug Valeska.
Valeska Q&A1. Is it fair that distributing 5 grams of crack carries the same sentence as distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine?“I don’t practice in federal court, but punishments are determined by whatever jurisdiction you’re in... They did that because, in my opinion, the street dealers are a nickel a dozen. There are so many of them, they’re everywhere. The feds passed the statute that crack carries more punishment. It’s on the street in a lot of socioeconomically deprived areas ruining the lives of those young kids. It’s like a giant cancer, it’s destroying everything.”2. Do you think it’s putting an unfairly high number of African Americans in prison?“I’m sick of hearing that as a prosecutor. I don’t prosecute in the federal court system, but I have no doubt that the U.S. attorneys don’t make cases on colors, they don’t go out and target and arrest people because of their color. They make drug cases because the agents who work those cases go out and arrest people. The grand jury that indicts doesn’t ask what color are people.“The U.S. attorney could come into town and run a swoop and catch 100 in a week’s time, but if you go to certain areas of town they won’t sell to you. There’s more of those individuals selling on the street than selling in Brentwood or the Woodlands.” 3. Could it not be argued that by putting away crack dealers for longer periods of time, the sentencing laws are actually making the black community safer because of the link between drugs and violent crime?“There’s no doubt it’s making them safer. The bottom line is that most of our victims in the country are African Americans. Second, the bottom line is that for every drug dealer we get off the street, it makes it harder for people to get it. “I’m tired of hearing that punishment’s not the answer, it’s lifting them up. The question is a lot of people can get help or want help if they ask for it. When’s the time they ask for help – when they’re facing 15 years to life because they’ve got two or three or four prior felony convictions?”4. How should the sentencing laws be changed?“I’m tired of hearing this as a district attorney. First-time possessors and second-time offenders are not going to prison. It’s those individuals that have been convicted and they’re out on probation and they’re flunking their drug tests and they continue to sell, they’re committing crimes and they don’t report, they don’t hold a job. What are you supposed to do with those individuals? Pat them on the back and let them head back into the community to sell death and destruction?”
Glasgow Q&A1. Is it unfair that distributing 5 grams of crack carries the same sentence as distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine?“First of all it’s unfair for the simple fact that powder cocaine and crack cocaine, it’s been medically proven that there’s no difference. When the ACLU did their investigation they found out there was no difference, they found out there was a lot of myths that happened. Twenty-eight judges in the U.S. courts of appeals and district courts who were formerly U.S. attorneys wrote the sentencing commission condemning the current disparity in 2002 and we’re still allowing it to exist in 2007.”2. How has the sentencing disparity impacted the black community?“The current penalties exaggerate the relative harmlessness of crack cocaine. They found out first of all, that the prenatal effects of crack cocaine exposure is identical to the negative effects of powder cocaine exposure. You’ve got a lot of the children around here calling themselves crack babies that feel like somethings wrong with them and they’re ADD, but the medical people found out that there’s no difference in the prenatal effects of powder as it is with crack.“The current penalties sweep too broadly and apply most often to lower-level offenders. When they made up the law that you get five minimum mandatory years for 5 grams crack compared to 500 grams of powder they made it up to direct it toward drug dealers who were traffickers. They found out that what they’re getting are local addicts.“The effect that’s having on the black community is that you’re taking fathers out of the household and you’re diminishing the household and you’re diminishing the progress of the community. Why don’t we take the non-violent offenders and the drug offenders and put them in treatment, alternative sentencing, community corrections, transitional housing. Why don’t we take them and give them some job skills and build up the black community instead of tearing them down?”3. Do you think that when these laws were passed the intent of their framers was to lock up as many African Americans as possible?“I’m going to be honest. I believe when they created these laws there was some leaning toward African Americans. It’s always been stated that powder was a white man’s drug and crack was a black man’s drug so the drug war itself has become a war on people and not a war on drugs. Here at The Ordinary People’s Society, I try to eliminate racism, but it’s hard to get people to think past that when they see the system as being stacked against them.”4. Could it not be argued that by putting away crack dealers for longer periods of time, the sentencing laws are actually making the black community safer because of the link between drugs and violent crime?“I could agree with that, that locking people up for selling crack is diminishing crime. But what about the people who are not selling it. I’m talking about the addicts who need treatment. Most of the people who are getting locked up are not dealers, they’re addicts. Most of the addicts in Dothan alone, it’s nothing for them to get 5 grams of crack.”5. How should the sentencing laws be changed?“The sentencing laws should be equal across the board. One gram of powder to one gram of crack.”Responses were edited for brevity.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Fight for voting rights continues

Politicians, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, religious leaders and civil rights activists, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton, gathered to honor the struggle for voting rights in Alabama at events marking the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
I am comforted by the important gains made by African Americans over the past 40 years, but reminded that the dream of equality Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. imagined is yet to be realized.
On March 7, 1965, marchers seeking voting rights for disenfranchised blacks in the South were beaten by police officers who wanted to stop the Selma to Montgomery protest. The tragic event mobilized broad support for the elimination of racist policies that created obstacles to African-American voting, and helped trigger the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The law was a vital step towards achieving the fundamental democratic principal of universal suffrage.
Despite the historic change, millions of Americans are still excluded from the polls because of restrictive felony voting laws that reflect the dramatic growth of the prison system in recent decades. At the time the Voting Rights Act was implemented, 1.5 million Americans could not vote because of a felony record. Today, more than 5.3 million people are disenfranchised nationally. This rise in the number of disenfranchised adults is an unfortunate reminder that the fight for voting rights goes on.
Alabama has the third highest disenfranchisement rate in the nation because its constitution imposes a lifetime ban on voting for people with certain felony convictions, and as a result nearly a quarter-million of our citizens cannot vote. Alabama is one of only 12 states to permanently bar some citizens from voting even after the completion of their full sentence. Of those disenfranchised in Alabama , nearly 90 percent have been released from prison, and live and work in the community.
Among African-Americans in Alabama , the rate of disenfranchisement is particularly stark. One of every seven African-American adults in Alabama is disenfranchised, a rate nearly twice the national average. Because Alabama imprisons African-Americans at a rate nearly four times that of whites, the racial influences that impact Alabama's criminal justice system contribute to African-Americans' high rates of disenfranchisement.
The result is that black communities have a diminished political voice. Even people without convictions lose political clout because the concerns of the community are not equally represented at the polls.
Since 1997, 16 states have taken steps to reform disenfranchisement laws, resulting in more than 600,000 people regaining the right to vote. Four years ago, the Alabama Legislature sought to improve its voter restoration process as well, by restoring voting rights to eligible people within 50 days of submitting an application.
It was a move in the right direction, but the bureaucratic confusion and inefficiency that arose has illegally denied voting rights to thousands of Alabama citizens. A voter restoration system that applies automatically after release from prison would ease the administrative burdens that delay restoration.
This is in sharp contrast to Attorney General Troy King's recent proposal to make Alabama 's voter system even more backward by requiring all citizens with felony convictions to apply through the bureaucratic restoration process.
The men and women who have redeemed themselves by serving their time in prison should be embraced and welcomed home. Restoring their right to vote is a crucial part of giving them a second chance. As a person who has been previously incarcerated, I know that voting connects you to your community by building responsibility for your neighbors and advancing common goals of democracy. Research has also shown that former offenders who vote are less likely to be rearrested than non-voters.
As we commemorate our advancements, I hope our country's leaders do not forget that the struggle for democracy continues for more than 5 million Americans who cannot vote because of past mistakes. The effort to expand voting rights to people with felony convictions is the new frontier of the civil rights movement. I hope those who marked this anniversary will join it.