April 20, 2009

Sentencing Guidelines: An Opportuntity for Steele and the GOP

If the GOP and Michael Steele really wanted to put its money where its mouth was when it comes to opening up the party and bringing blacks into a better relationship with the party, here is a perfect opportunity.

Color of Change has ginned up a campaign to fight sentencing disparities, a timely effort given that their might be some daylight for this issue. Legislation is moving around in Congress to eliminate the sentencing disparities that have created a national disaster: 1 in 15 Black adults in America are now behind bars. Not because they commit more crime but largely because of unfair sentencing rules that treat 5 grams of crack cocaine, the kind found in poor Black communities, the same as 500 grams of powder cocaine, the kind found in White and wealthier communities.

You have to be convicted of moving roughly $500,000 worth of cocaine to trigger a 5-year sentence. For crack? About $500 worth. These laws punish the lowest-level dealers, while providing a loophole that helps those running the trade escape harsh sentences. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which provides sentencing guidelines for judges, has petitioned Congress numerous times to change the sentencing laws. Senate bill 1711 will completely eliminate the sentencing disparity and end the mandatory minimum for crack possession, while increasing funding for drug treatment programs.

This has been a long running injustice in the sentencing guidelines, made law by Democrats no less including our current vice president. The GOP has run on a law and order ticket often and has made hay with issues like sentencing for political gain. But the sentencing guidelines are unjust and unfair in this regard and have done great damage to black communities. That damage is compounded when add in the problems of recidivism and reentry. It takes nothing away from the GOP's rule of law bona fides to support a move to correct this problem. If we were smart, we'd pick up this ball and run with it and give ourselves an argument for black support that would resonate with every family that has had a loved one do hard time under these guidelines.

If we were smart.