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Cracked Reasoning

Sam Milgrom,
Washington Legislative Office
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April 29, 2009

Crack the Disparity,” our big red buttons read.

“This isn’t tough on crime! This is exploiting the low-hanging fruit!” a woman exclaimed as she passed out Good Humor chocolate bars that were wrapped in paper that read:

Stop Senseless “junk food science.” The weight of 1 candy bar in crack = 10 years in federal prison. Two-thirds of Federal crack cocaine cases are prosecuted for possession of the weight of the 50-gram candy bar in crack cocaine.

One needs a good sense of humor if you think these laws are just.

With the addition of my third cup of coffee, these rallying cries and props were definitely getting me in the mood to lobby at 8 a.m. this morning.

Although I have interned at three public policy advocacy organizations here in D.C., today was my first time experiencing a lobby day. I was quickly energized by the passion that spread from the folks I squeezed in next to in the Russell Senate building hearing room.

People of many ages, colors, occupations, religions and regions of the United States came together to lobby on behalf of the same cause: eliminating the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

I don’t mean to be sappy, but I was truly moved and became genuinely emotional as I listened to the multiple reasons that brought the many people to the Hill today to lobby against the crack cocaine sentencing disparity.

One young woman around my age (early to mid 20’s) was from South Carolina. Her first cousin is a police officer who faces a life sentence because of an erroneous crack cocaine possession with intent to distribute charge.

Another woman, a teacher in Philadelphia who works with young African-American men who have been convicted of drug-related crimes, told me she was there because as far as she knew and could understand, crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same drug and should be treated and controlled as such, especially because of how the sentencing guidelines disproportionately discriminates against people of color.

Kemba Smith, who addressed the group during the briefing, is a young woman who would still be serving a prison sentence until 2016 for possession of 255 kilos of crack cocaine if she hadn’t been granted an executive clemency nearly a decade ago. Based on the sentencing guidelines at the time and that are still in place today, she was sentenced to 24.5 years. Fortunately, she served only a little more than six. The truly unjust part of her story is that the crack was her boyfriend’s and because she didn’t inform the authorities but instead kept it to herself, she was charged and convicted with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, money laundering, and making false statements, despite the fact that the prosecutor admitted that she never actually handled or sold drugs. During her time in prison she gave birth to her son while shackled to the prison bed.

These heart-wrenching, personal, real-life stories, told by the folks who suffered because of this irrational and consequently racist legislation, stoked the fire just enough for the group to want to get up and demand a change in policy from our legislature right then and there.

Well, that was the plan.

Later in the day, I joined a few others to meet with Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who announced that he’d switched political parties just a few hours before our scheduled meeting.

Apparently his office was too much of a media circus, so the six of us waited to hear from one of his assistants as to where our new location for our meeting would be. We were directed to two other rooms between two different Senate buildings before we were finally greeted by Sen. Specter’s Chief Counsel for Crime and Terrorism. There was no open room for us to sit and discuss the importance of eradicating the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity, so we stood in the lobby and quickly and passionately expressed our desire for a change in policy.

Although it seemed as though we were sent on a wild goose chase in order to present our position, I am confident our plea did not fall on deaf ears. Sen. Specter’s representative expressed how he was informed on the issue and that he personally supported our stance and nearly guaranteed, regardless of political party, that the senator felt the same way.

The meeting was short and to the point. Although the lobby visit paled in comparison emotionally to the early morning briefing, it served an important purpose and is the best way to get lawmakers’ attention. The senator’s representative made sure to ask where we were from and the four who were from Pennsylvania informed him of that and he did not take that lightly. They are constituents after all, and if the senator doesn’t listen to them, he could be out of a job.

Though skeptical at the beginning of the meeting because of its confines, I walked away confident that we made our position clear and that our efforts had been enough to urge the senator to see the logic in sentencing the possession of crack and powder cocaine identically.

Although this was the last opportunity to lobby against the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity, I hope to revisit the Hill to advocate for other issues many more times in the future.

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