Rock v. Blow: The Apologies Begin

Drug warriors are better known for mandatory minimums than hand-wringing contrition. That may be about to change.

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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.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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