The U.S. Senate finally passed a bill that reduces the punishment for crack cocaine. For the unaware, in 1987, during the height of the crack epidemic, laws were passed that created mandatory minimum sentences for possession of crack that were 100 times worse than those for possession of powder cocaine. That means that if you get caught with five grams of crack you would get the same five-year sentence that someone caught with 500 grams of powder. The bill passed today would reduce that ratio to 18-1, a dramatic, if flawed improvement. A bill currently in committee in the House of Representative proposes to level the playing field to 1-1. Personally, I’m hoping that the House bill makes the cut, as opposed to the Senate version.
Why the disparity in the first place? Back then it was thought that crack was more addictive than standard coke. In the greedy, cocaine-fueled 80s crack became virulent in our projects and ghettoes. There was fear about crack babies, who would grow up not only parentless, but mentally impaired as well. At the rate things seemed to be going, if strong actions weren’t taken, we could lose a whole generation. As it turns out, none of that was true.
Crack babies, like the smack babies before that (which included my older brother and my little sister) grew up to be normal adults if given the proper care and attention. And the reason for the spike in crack use? It was cheap. Plain and simple. All you need is a few grams of coke, some baking soda, water and a pot. What Wall Street bankers (and future presidents named Bush) were paying through the nose for could be obtained for a pittance on the street. Of course, fear is a great motivator.
And don’t think for a minute that the undercover racists in our government back then didn’t realize that this was an easy way to lock up tons of us colored folk. The draconian policies began the trend of arresting users, warehousing them for years, turning them into hardened criminals and ruining their futures. As felons, our people would be released and be unable to get decent jobs or even vote, in most cases. How better to beat Democrats than to disenfranchise a shitload of the folx that typically vote for them? Bonus: You can keep a whole class of people subjugated. After all, we need the uneducated masses to do the shit jobs no one wants to do.
After the usual long wait a wrong will finally being righted—or at least improved. Two actually. I mentioned that the mass warehousing of people who likely should have been put right into rehab led to the loss of voting rights for those that were labeled felons. The crack craze essentially resurrected Jim Crow. About 5.3 million Americans have lost their right to vote, 4 million of those are no longer even in prison. A third of those are black. That adds up to 13 percent, about 1 in 8, of African American men who have lost their right to vote. Fortunately, the House is also considering a bill that would ban states from refusing to allow felons to vote once they’ve been released from prison. Like drug dealers, the wheels of social justice grind slowly, but they do keep grinding.
Fernando Quijano III is the former President of the Maryland Writers Association, Baltimore Chapter. His work has been featured in Welter, Smile Hon, You’re in Baltimore & the poetry anthology, Life in Me Like Grass on Fire. An excerpt from his unpublished novel, Forever, Lilith was included in the Apprentice House anthology Freshly Squeezed. He has been featured at the Baltimore Book Festival, Stoop Storytelling, & The Signal on WYPR, Baltimore's local NPR station. In his spare time, Fernando volunteers to lead workshops for Writing Outside the Fence, a program for the ex-offender community, as well as at the Brock Bridge Correctional Facility. Fernando was recently awarded a B grant for his writing by the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund.