in march, bill clinton made headlines when he expressed regret over the 100-to-1 disparity between federal sentences for crack- and powder-cocaine-related offenses. “We sentenced with a shotgun instead of a rifle,” he told an audience in Philadelphia. He promised he would “spend a significant portion of whatever life I’ve got left on the earth trying to fix this, because I think it’s a cancer.”
Clinton’s dramatic apology was another sign that politicians are rethinking the harsh drug laws that have long been decried for their disproportionate effect on African Americans. The about-face began in April of 2007 when the US Sentencing Commission voted to soften sentences for first-time crack offenders. (See “Crackdown Chronology.”) In December, the ussc unanimously voted to make the reduced penalties for crack offenses retroactive. (Nearly 85 percent of the prisoners eligible for reductions are black.) Sen. Barack Obama was quick to praise the change. “Let’s not make the punishment for crack cocaine that much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine,” he told a Howard University audience, “when the real difference between the two is the skin color of the people using them.” In February, Sen. Joe Biden, a staunch drug warrior during the 1980s, slammed the discrepancy as “arbitrary, unnecessary, and unjust” and introduced legislation that would eliminate it. That month, Sen. Hillary Clinton told Vibe that she’d “been a strong advocate of eliminating the disparity.” (Her campaign aides had earlier claimed Obama’s support for the ussc decision would hurt him with tough-on-crime white independents.)
Drug policy experts caution that crack-sentencing reform does not address the greater evils of the drug war: mandatory minimum sentences aimed at low-level drug offenders. “The guidelines hammer street-corner dealers with kingpin-style sentences,” says Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. It’s a mistake that Sterling, who was counsel to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee during the heyday of mandatory minimums, admits “I contributed to.” The wave of contrition has yet to penetrate the inner reaches of the Justice Department, which has long opposed even modest sentencing-reform efforts.