Cocaine sentencing guidelines reveal racial disparity 

Crack Is Whack: The move to set dealers free

If a recent Post & Courier article on crack cocaine sentences is any indication, Damon Brightman deserves his own long running movie series just as much as Freddie Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jigsaw. At the very least Brightman, a 20-something black man from North Charleston, could be the star of a straight-to-video flick starring Casper Van Dien, Trishelle from The Real World Las Vegas, and let's say a half-boa, half-rat, half-Palmetto bug from the 8th-and-a-half circle of hell. He's apparently that scary.

According to a P&C report titled "Some drug dealers could see prison sentences cut," Brightman is currently serving a life sentence for "his role in a drug ring that dumped 33 pounds of crack and powdered cocaine onto the streets." However, the article fails to specify what Brightman's role was in the drug ring. He may have been the brains of the operation; he may have been a duffle bag boy. It's hard to tell, and the daily apparently didn't feel like that was important, especially when they're trying to scare the pea-turkey out of readers.

So what's so scary? The U.S. Sentencing Commission is debating whether to make changes to the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses retroactive. And if that happens, the P&C reports, "[D]ealers like Brightman, who was 28 when sentenced, might be freed to pick up exactly where they left off."

I know, yikes. Break out the garlic and sharpen up the stakes.

All right, let's take a step back for a minute and get a little perspective.

Last spring, the commission decided that sentences for crack cocaine offenses were too harsh, and many organizations agreed, including the American Bar Association. According to now-defunct sentencing guidelines, the ABA says, "[C]rimes involving just five grams of crack, 10 to 50 doses, receive the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as crimes involving 500 grams of powder cocaine, 2,500 to 5,000 doses."

Now, the P&C report fails to point out just how bad this sentencing disparity is. Instead, the daily only vaguely alludes to the sentencing difference and chooses to point out that retroactive sentencing is supported by some unnamed civil rights organizations, with the only comment in favor of the retroactive sentencing coming from Dot Scott, the head of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Now, getting a quote from Scott and the NAACP makes perfect sense. If there's one thing the debate over crack sentences is about, it's race; after all, 82 percent of all people serving sentences under federal crack cocaine laws are black while most doing time for powdered cocaine are white. However, by failing to detail just how harsh crack sentences are compared to powder cocaine, the report cues the hard-wired racial prejudices some readers may have and indirectly portrays those who support the measure as soft on crime.

The P&C report also overlooks the fact that this sort of thing isn't out of the ordinary. When sentencing guidelines for those convicted of marijuana, LSD, and oxycodone offenses were lessened, those serving time for those drugs saw their sentences retroactively reduced. So what's the difference here? Those in jail for the above offenses are predominately white; those for crack cocaine, black.

It must be pointed out that toward the end of the article, the P&C backs away from the fear-mongering and race-baiting, first noting that "not all of South Carolina's crack cocaine convicted would be eligible for early release" and then mentioning that, ultimately, federal judges will decide who is released and who isn't.

Now whether or not folks like Damon Brightman currently serving crack cocaine-related offenses will be set free or have their sentences reduced will be based on whether or not their sentences were unduly harsh in the first place. And if those sentences were, then they need to be adjusted. That's justice.

As for whether or not these offenders pick up where they left off, that's up to them, as it is to the countless others released from prisons every day.


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