The year was 1986. The Oprah Winfrey Show had just debuted on national television. The Boston Celtics defeated the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, earning Larry Bird his final NBA championship. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan hadn’t even won a league MVP yet but put up a 63 burger in the playoffs. Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons created the world’s least-favorite nepo baby. Rapture, Parade, Raising Hell, Licensed to Ill, and Dancing on the Ceiling hit record store shelves. And then-Senator Joe Biden co-sponsored the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986, better known as the bill that put a curious (ahem, racist) legal distinction between crack-cocaine and cocaine into law. Thirty-six years later, Biden’s administration is attempting to rectify the evil it wrought on Black communities.
On Dec. 16, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s office sent a memo to federal prosecutors instructing them to end all sentencing disparities between crack and the powder form of cocaine. Garland’s memo stated that “the crack/powder disparity is simply not supported by science, as there are no significant pharmacological differences between the drugs: they are two forms of the same drug.”
It would make sense that the same drug would carry the same sentence, but for decades this hasn’t been the case, since crack is considered a drug that is associated with Black people and gang members. The memo acknowledges this, saying, “mandatory minimum sentences based on drug type and quantity have resulted in disproportionately severe sentences for certain defendants and perceived and actual racial disparities in the criminal justice system.” According to the United States Sentencing Commission, in 2021, 77.6 percent of people arrested for crack-cocaine trafficking sentences were Black; 91.5 percent were men.
Shortly after the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that then-Senator Joe Biden co-sponsored, criminal justice advocates have criticized it heavily for its inherent disparities. The 1986 bill carried a 100-to-1 crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Carrying five grams of crack was met with a five-year mandatory minimum sentence while 500 grams of powder cocaine carried the same exact minimum sentence.
Good on Biden and co. for righting a decades-long wrong, but the damage is done. The disparities here have contributed to a New Jim Crow, ripped-up families, and stolen lives. If the powers that be really want to change the world, they need to understand barely anybody sells or smokes crack because they really want to. There are a lot of other factors in life that make it seem like the only road worth traveling. You know what would be a great way to really take a step towards repentance for this indignity? You guessed it: reparations.