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Richard Cobb: Remove inequities from sentencing guidelines

Aug. 27, 2013 @ 08:38 AM

Laws are necessary to protect our rights, but laws must be applied fairly and equally. Good public policy and the even-handed application of laws are critical to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of every citizen, be he or she a law-abiding citizen, or one who violates a law.

For example, are the rights of individuals sentenced for violating drug laws assured under federal sentencing laws? The U.S. Sentencing Commission formulates sentencing policy. This commission is an agency of the judicial branch of the federal government of the United States.

The United States has more people confined to prison than any other nation in the world, and blacks, Latinos and Native Americans are over-represented throughout the U.S. prison system. This disparity is most obvious in the so-called "war on drugs." The unequal treatment of people of color and whites in every stage of the criminal justice system -- in convictions, sentencing and detention -- as stated before, is a matter of record. Historically, within the U.S. Criminal Justice System, there have been incidents of misconduct by judges, lawyers, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies, which have, among other things, resulted in unfair jail and prison sentences for individuals who violate the same law.

The Drug Policy Alliance reports that "the rate of drug admissions to state prison for black men is 13 times greater than the rate for white men." According to this source, blacks and Latinos are victims of "the failure of judges, elected officials and other criminal justice policy makers to redress the inequities that have come to permeate the system."

A report by Human Rights Watch found that "while drug use is consistent across all racial groups, blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted and given longer sentences for drug offenses. Blacks constitute 13 percent of all drug users, but 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of persons convicted, and 74 percent of people sent to prison."

Nationally, Latinos comprise almost half of those arrested for marijuana offenses and Native Americans comprise almost 66 percent of those prosecuted for criminal offenses in federal courts. The facts speak for themselves -- racism is at work in the "war of drugs."

On May 22, 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a press release urging a U.S. Senate subcommittee to support the repeal of dramatic disparities in sentencing policy between crack and powder cocaine, saying that sentences for crack offenses were extraordinarily and unnecessarily harsh and must be lessened. "The sentences for crack offenses need to fall to a level in line with the punishments for powder," said Rachel King, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. "There is no rational medical or policy reason to punish crack more severely than powder. Cocaine is cocaine." As a March 2, 2010, New York Times editorial concluded, "It is time to finally put aside crack myths and hysteria. This isn't a question of being soft on crime. It is an issue of fairness and sound public policy."

In a country where individual rights, fairness, equality and equal justice are considered inalienable rights, the U.S. government has failed to rectify the damage done, due to bad science and bad sentencing policy. The sentencing policy must be corrected to ensure there is zero disparity between minority crack users and cocaine powder users, and, ultimately, long prison sentences must be replaced by a concerted effort to rehabilitate drug users. Incarceration merely acts as a time-out period, and usually is followed by recidivism.

Richard Cobb, a Huntington resident, is former chairperson of the Huntington Human Relations Commission.

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