Equal under law?

Sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine subvert justice
By Sam Patten | Feb 25, 2021

Is it just to have two very different punishments for the same crime?

“It’s hard to believe it’s not intentional,” the metro police detective told me when I asked what he thought about the penalty and sentencing disparity between offenses involving powder and crack cocaine. Either I’d just fallen for the good cop/bad cop thing, or we were having a genuine moment.

If you get busted for a crack-related crime in America, you will face 10 times the punishment you would for a powder cocaine crime, according to my detective friend. Statistics I’ve seen elsewhere show an even wilder disparity (closer to 20:1).

The well-to-do white dude leaving the Waterfront in his Porsche after a couple of drinks is more likely to be caught in possession of which kind of cocaine? What about the inner city African-American citizen?

My detective friend is African-American. But that doesn’t imply bias when you look at the numbers alone. Mandatory sentencing requirements enacted against crack in the late 80s were part of a “tough on crime” wave that didn’t extend to those snorting blow in Studio 54. If not by intent, then certainly in practice, the double standard is plain and simple discrimination.

In Maine, we face a greater threat from opiates than cocaine, in terms both of fatalities and human misery. Here again, my friend points out, there is a double standard. As opposed to penalties, it has to do with approach. We deal with opiate addiction as a disease first, whereas inner city drug abuse — more likely to involve crack — is a crime first (unless you’re Hunter Biden).

That little dig is not just gratuitous; rather, it serves the larger point.

So what is to be done? Listen to Matthew Charles.

Arrested as a young man for trafficking in crack, Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison. In 2016, after having served 2/3 of his sentence, he was released, only to be re-incarcerated by prosecutors challenging his eligibility for early release.

The unfairness sparked such an outcry, with nearly 140,000 people signing a petition, that Charles became the first prisoner to be (re)released under the First Step Act in 2019.

Today, Matthew Charles is traveling across America urging states to address the immoral disparity in sentencing between two varieties of the same chemical substance. Since meeting him at a criminal justice reform-oriented event in Washington soon after his release and being struck by his humble yet powerful message, I have been following him on Facebook.

A couple of weeks ago, he posted that President Biden asked him what his first executive order of criminal justice reform should be, and he counseled balancing the crack versus powder sentencing guidelines. Let’s see if what sounds like a simple request can in fact be delivered.

There seem to be perennial bills that aim to equalize these, yet little gets done. I sent a note to all my federal representatives on the issue, and only one has written back so far — and his/her response, while well-meaning, references no specific legislation.

Until the law is one for all, it can be hard to respect the law. That’s why it’s worth taking a few minutes to learn the story of Matthew Charles, or others who have put their hard-earned experience to work for a more just nation.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.

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