Thursday, December 13, 2007

Shall We Celebrate or Cry? : The Looming Release of Thousands of Crack Cocaine Offenders

December 13, 2007

Shall We Celebrate or Cry?: The Looming Release of Thousands of Crack Cocaine Offenders

By Carol M. Swain

Christians often say to one another, “Be careful what you pray for.” Right now, there is a strong possibility that thousands of mostly black federal prisoners (86 percent) incarcerated for crack cocaine convictions will seek early release. On December 12th, The U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously decided to retroactively apply their new sentencing guidelines to roughly 19,500 inmates serving time in federal prisons for such violations. . The Commission’s decision came one day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kimbrough v. U.S. that federal judges can offer more lenient sentences in cases involving crack cocaine.

What impact will the return of so many ex-convicts have on communities around the country? I’m afraid that unless our leaders do some careful planning and resource allocation, the retroactive application of the changes in sentencing could be a recipe for further neighborhood disintegration. Before considering what could become quite ugly, let’s discuss what I see as the good and bad emanating from this well intentioned decision.

As early as next year, thousands of affected prisoners could be back home, re-entering communities that lack support networks and infrastructures needed to successfully reintegrate them back into society. Their families and loved ones will suffer the consequences of no good deed going unpunished.

It is good that the both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Sentencing Commission decided that enough is enough. It was time to end the blatant disparity in the criminal justice system that may have made sense in the 1980s, but was no longer defensible in the wake of Jena Six and recent protests.

For more than a decade, civil rights leaders have called the mandatory minimum sentencing laws racist. These laws have forced Federal judges to punish crack cocaine dealers much more harshly than those trafficking in powdered cocaine. What made sense in 1986 and 1988, was an embarrassment in 2007. If someone convicted of having five grams of crack cocaine faced a mandatory sentence of five years in prison and 10 years for 50 grams; whereas, powdered cocaine convictions, mostly associated with white offenders, required 500 and 1000 grams to trigger the same sentences.

Forgotten, in the name-calling and suspicions of racial motivations, were how these disparities became law. Tougher laws against crack cocaine dealers were passed in the late 1980s with the full blessings of the Congressional Black Caucus and white Democrats concerned about drug wars and violent crimes that were wreaking havoc in many urban black communities.

It is a bad that it took so long for corrective measures to occur. Meanwhile, the minimum sentences were responsible for the steady, unrelenting removal of thousands of marriageable, young black men from their communities and the families that loved them and had to carry on in their absence.

The ugly is yet to happen. It looms. The ugly could occur if thousands of formerly incarcerated men are released from prison into communities not adequately prepared for their return. Needed will be group homes (preferably faith-based), job training, educational opportunities, drug rehabilitation, anger management programs and more law enforcement personnel and jail space for the recidivist. Without the necessary support networks, the newly released ex-cons will find themselves in the same hopeless situations that lead to their initial downfall.

This time the newly-released prisoners will find themselves in a radically changed environment where thousands of legal and illegal immigrants will hold many of the low-wage, low-skilled dishwashing and landscaping jobs unskilled laborers once banked on. As problems and frustrations mount, some people will hear a faint reminder in the distance, “Be careful what you pray for.”

2007 Carol M. Swain. Web design by CSP