For people of color, mandatory minimums with maximum damage

by Daniel Blomquist / Assistant Opinion Editor • February 5, 2015

What’s worse: Selling drugs or killing someone with a car? According to the government, it’s the former. The federal mandatory minimum sentence for selling a small amount of LSD is 5 years. Though there are 25 states that have minimum sentences for drunken vehicular manslaughter—usually between one and three years— there is no federal minimum sentence for it, according to the nonprofit Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The mandatory minimum sentence for selling LSD isn’t an outlier; plenty of seemingly minor drug offenses carry absurdly high sentences, ones that judges are legally bound to apply.

While drug trafficking can indeed consist of some pretty damaging behaviors, it’s also a crime of wide variety, perpetuated by people of all economic backgrounds. Certain drug dealers cater to a middle- to upper-class clientele, as detailed in a 2014 feature on The Atlantic. “Within one four-hour period, I saw Carlo [a dealer] cater to NYU students, lawyers, artists, bankers, and a college professor—all ordering drugs to their apartments as casually as if it were Chinese food,” the reporter wrote. “Drugs are a part of everyday life for people from all social classes.” 

From store-bought alcohol to street-bought narcotics, the prevalence of drugs are clear. Still, the government still uses outdated laws to prosecute its citizens to a massively unnecessary degree.

As with too many criminal laws, mandatory minimum sentences disproportionately affect African-Americans. The Department of Justice’s incarceration statistics show that African-Americans are arrested by the police more frequently for nonviolent drug offenses than any other ethnic or racial group. One example: The mandatory sentence for possessing powder cocaine is 18 times less severe than its lower-costing analog crack cocaine, the more common form in impoverished neighborhoods.

The mandatory minimum sentence for possessing 28 grams of crack is five years, a duration that would be required through the possession of 500 grams of powdered cocaine. Only in did the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, or FSA, dropped the old ratio of 100:1. 

These concerns are commonly dismissed because of the demographic these laws affect: drug users and traffickers, a group that the press isn’t often inclined to defend. While these harsh sentences were meant to discourage the use and sale of drugs, statistics show that this has not been the case. Rather than scaring people out of drug use, the laws seem to have made it easier for police to arrest and charge people of color. A 2013 MSNBC report quoted The Sentencing Project, writing that “African-Americans make up 12% of the nation’s drug users, but represent 34% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 45% of those in state prison for such offense as of 2005.”

These drug charges bring negative consequences upon not just the people of color who are convicted and sentenced for unjust durations of time, but their communities as well. A 2002 paper titled “Black Youths and Illegal Drugs,” published in the Journal of Black Studies, details the cyclical effects of drug laws. Nonviolent offenders convicted under mandatory minimum laws are being torn away from their families, unable to provide guidance and support for their children or fund productive developmental endeavors. As a result, their children are driven out of schools and into gangs, opting to take part in the drug trade rather than work long hours at a low paying job. This, of course, results in more drug crimes and convictions, setting the cycle in motion once again.

Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, proposed legislation in 2013 that would bring the country closer to better sentencing laws. It would pardon the 77,000 still serving those unfair terms, and would eliminate the crack/powder cocaine disparity. It reached the Senate floor in January 2014 and was promptly voted down, according to congressional record. We must hold Congress more accountable for our well-being and stop re-electing fearmongers who continue to remain silent in the face of our system’s glaring flaws, like the federal minimum drug sentencing policy. We should end the destruction of African-American communities, unclog our prison system, and stop treating nonviolent drug users worse than murderers.