Monday, March 23, 2009

The Duality of the American Legal System


During my three year stretch of time in Newark, New Jersey, I came to witness many things that I had never seen before. One of the memories that sticks out most in my mind are the group of high school crack dealers who lived across the street from me. My roommate James and I passed by them everyday on our way to law school where we would read about the laws they were breaking and the system that, although they were oblivious to it, was deliberately designed to wait for them at the finish line.

As time moved on we observed some of their patterns of behavior. How they hid the crack when the police came down the street. The customers they had. Their respective ranking within the group. We even had nicknames for them (mostly based on characters from The Wire).

But what I remember most is that they were just kids.

The oldest was maybe 17 or 18 years old. To them, this was how life was. An expectation. If they had been born in Idaho they would have learned the family business of potato farming or something. If they were born in Silicon Valley they might have been techno-hustlers for Google or what have you. But they weren't. They were born in central ward Newark, New Jersey and in central ward Newark, New Jersey the family business is slanging on the corner.

Now, I'm not making any excuses for these cats. They did what they did. They basically fell in line with the whole Baby Boy Legacy that we discussed before. (see previous Note "The Baby Boy Legacy") They could have gone to school with the rest of the kids I suppose, but after volunteering my time with some of the Newark schools I can't exactly blame them if they questioned the long term benefits of a public school "education" in Newark.

That being said, what I came to learn about these kids in law school was best summed up by my Legal Jurisprudence professor who came into class on the first day and said "[i]n America we have two justice systems...there's one for white people, and then there's one for everybody else." (BTW, that professor was white) The more I studied, the more this proposition emerged as an unfortunate yet undeniable truth.

In 1986, Congress passed the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Crack. These laws set up a huge 100 to 1 disparity in the punishment for Crack (a drug commonly found in the ghetto) vs. Cocaine (a drug commonly found with the upper class) even though they are both derived from the same substance. For example, for powder cocaine, a conviction of possession with intent to distribute carries a five year sentence for 500 grams or more. But for crack, a conviction of possession with intent to distribute carries a five year sentence for only 5 grams.

In 1973 right here in New York, the state legislature passed what are known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. They were passed as a direct response to the heroine epidemic that swept through NYC after folks like Frank Lucas (American Gangster) literally flooded the streets with the product. These laws made carrying 100 grams of some substances equal in punishment to second degree murder: 25 years to life in prison.

Multiple studies have shown that these laws have a significantly disproportionate impact on low level street pushers primarily, like the kids across the street from me, and rarely (if ever) prosecute or stop the higher level drug suppliers who bring the product into our country. These laws are effectively the equivalent of trying to stop a bathtub from overflowing by plugging a hole in the side with your finger while leaving the faucet running.

According to the United States Sentencing Commission, approximately 2/3 of crack users are white or Hispanic, yet the vast majority of persons convicted of possession in federal courts are African American. Defendants convicted of crack possession in 1994 were 84.5% black, 10.3% white, and 5.2% Hispanic.

Three weeks ago, New York's legislature voted to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which brings me to my question.


When you consider that the young Black youth shouldn't be out on the corner selling this stuff in the first place, is it a good idea to repeal these kinds of laws?

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