The United States Conference of Mayors: Celebrating 75 Years

Executive Director's Column

To The Mayor
From The Executive Director
Washington, DC
March 4, 1999

Everybody is bragging about the crime rate being down in our cities, but Mr. Timothy Egan in the New York Times this past Sunday provides another picture of our American criminal justice system that is startling. Mr. Egan reports that every 20 seconds, someone is arrested for a drug violation and every week a new prison is built. Today we, the USA, have the largest penal system. Ten years ago our drug crimes were on scale with other democracies.

Mr. Egan says that crack scared the hell out of us and we moved to rewrite our drug laws ten years ago and proceeded to lock up record numbers of people and shift money from schools to prisons.

Mr. Egan also states that the worst fears of crack were not realized. He points out that the number of crack users have fallen and now, "a decade later, the violence of the crack trade has burned out, and murder rates have plunged."

We need to look at the federal law that was passed which has thrown the criminal justice system off balance. Mr. Egan writes "For people convicted of a crack offense, the world of justice is unlike any other. Crack is simply cocaine processed so that it can be smoked. Possessing 5 grams of crack is a felony with an automatic five-year prison term, while 5 grams of the same drug in powder form is a misdemeanor likely to carry no jail time."

Mr. Egan gives us the racial implications of the crack laws: One of every 20 Americans born this year will serve time in prison. "For blacks, the projection is 1 in 4. By 1996, 8.3 percent of black men age 25-29 were inmates, compared with 0.8 percent of white men that age. In addition, a law aimed at one type of drug use has been applied most often against one type of user -- urban blacks.

A higher percentage of blacks use crack cocaine than whites or Hispanic people. But in absolute numbers, twice as many whites as blacks use crack, and three times as many whites as blacks use powder cocaine, the national household survey shows.

As the war on drugs set up special penalties on crack, however, law enforcement focused on the highly visible, often violent crack trade in city neighborhoods, rather than the larger traffic in cocaine going on behind closed doors across the country. The result: Nearly 90 percent of the people locked up for crack under Federal drug laws are black, General McCaffrey said.

Over and over, we see the words "inner-city" being quoted by the proponents of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. In state prisons, blacks make up nearly 60 percent of the persons serving time on drug offenses according to Justice Department figures, though they are only 12 percent of the general population and 15 percent of regular drug users.

Mr. Egan quotes Mr. Douglas C. McDonald, a senior scientist at ABT Associates in Cambridge, who says the racial disparity would disappear if the law treated the powder and crack form of cocaine equally. Mr. McDonald has testified before Congress stating that if enforcement were evenly applied more whites than blacks would go to prison.

How and why did the law pass? The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 cleared the House with only 16 dissenting votes and sailed through the Senate for President Regan's signature the day before election day.

Mr. Eric Sterling, a lead lawyer for the House Judiciary Committee in 1986, says "There was a level of hysteria that led to a total breakdown of the legislative process."

Mr. Egan reminds us that crack was labeled an epidemic in the summer of 1986 when college basketball star Len Bias died of a drug overdose, reportedly crack cocaine. Mr. Bias had already been drafted by Speaker Tip O'Neill's hometown Celtics team. Mr. Bias's death prompted speaker O'Neill to order an overhaul of all drug laws. Mr. Bias touched the nation and his death was invoked several times during passage of the bill. Later, after the flawed law was passed, court testimony revealed that Mr. Bias died of powder cocaine, not crack.

But at the time the law passed, crack dominated our television and newspapers. According to Mr. Egan, NBC labeled crack as "America's drug of choice" and Drug Czar William Bennett predicted it would soon invade every home in America. And Newsweek compared crack to the bubonic plague and called crack "the most addictive drug known to man."

Egan tells us that few involved with the law back then dispute crack's link to violence and gangs. "It was a nightmare" said General McCaffrey, "It was World War III."

But Egan reports this today, "General McCaffrey says he came to the drug debate with an open mind but has become convinced that current policies, with the primary emphasis on imprisonment, are failing. The current system is bad drug policy and bad law enforcement," he said.

On cost alone, arresting, prosecuting and locking up all drug criminals at the price of about $35 billion a year is not effective, he said. He now favors long sentences for dealers and treatment for low-level users."

The nation's mayors have been arguing for a long time that we must have drug treatment for persons in prison and that no one should be released from prison unless they are drug free. Of course, we have also supported drug treatment by demand for all persons addicted.

Mr. Egan tells us that crack was never the drug of choice. He writes that one-half of one percent of the population used crack once a month while 10 percent used marijuana. And 3 out of 4 high school seniors who tried crack did not continue to use it. "Although crack was labeled the world's most addictive drug, 10 years of national surveys have shown that most people who try crack do not continue to use it."

The Rand Corporation says mandatory jail terms are the least cost effective way of reducing cocaine consumption and it is widely known that drugs are in prisons.

President Clinton, reversing the years of reduced Federal financing for drug rehabilitation, is requesting in his budget increased money for treating addicts. The mayors support this initiative.

There is some hope but we have a long way to go. The mayors, along with the police chiefs, will continue in our work, leading the effort, with a long established goal to make America drug free.