By Judge Greg Mathis
The House Judiciary Committee, under the direction of Congressman John Conyers (D – MI) will, in the next few weeks, begin hearings on the controversial mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Up first: A review of the sentencing disparities in cases involving crack and powder cocaine. In Conyers' 40-plus years in Congress, he has supported legislation to protect and advance civil liberties, ensure equal protection and access to the voting booth and protect women from violence.
Conyers is one of the 13 founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The Caucus was founded in 1969 to strengthen African-American lawmakers’ ability to address the concerns of Black and minority citizens. Conyers’ commitment to social justice is a welcome and much-needed addition to the justice system. His leadership should put a new face -- one that is fair and balanced -- on the American justice system.
At the height of America’s "war on drugs," mandatory minimum sentencing laws were put in place to punish dealers. The laws require judges to hand down set sentences to individuals convicted of a crime. Judges are not allowed to consider extenuating circumstances -- Was the individual coerced? Do they have any previous convictions? -- when sentencing. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, mandatory sentencing fails to deter crime and, as originally intended, the laws do not punish big-times dealers. Instead, mandatory minimums sent record numbers of people of color and women -- an overwhelming number of them addicted to drugs -- to jail, many of them for life, despite the nonviolent nature of many of their crimes.
The laws have been especially detrimental to black women. If caught acting as a courier for her drug dealing boyfriend, a woman would receive the same stiff sentence she would have had she actually sold the drug. As a result, the number of black women in America’s prisons has skyrocketed over the last 10 years.
When the penalties for drug possession were set, the punishment for crack was set higher because lawmakers believed crack was a more dangerous drug -- and associated with more violent behavior -- than powdered cocaine. Research has shown that there is no real difference in the potential dangers of crack or powdered cocaine. There is, however, a difference in the type of user that favors the two drugs: Because of its much-lower street price, crack is associated with poor, minority and urban users, while powder cocaine tends to be favored by more affluent users.
Over 80 percent of those convicted on crack cocaine charges are black. These nonviolent drug offenders would be better served by a drug treatment facility but are, instead, sentenced to long sentences -- overcrowding prisons and running up a prison expense tab that is now in the billions.
Conyers has long been a critic of mandatory minimums and believes that no distinction should be made between crack and powder cocaine during sentencing.
We only have to look at Congressman Conyers’ track record to know that the upcoming hearings will go beyond the surface and dive deeply into the issues, an important first step towards change.