There is nothing just about sentencing a black drug peddler with a revenue of $1,800 to twenty-five years, while a white, presidential campaign manager is sentenced to seven and a half years in a VIP prison for laundering well over $50 million. Despite this concerning difference, American courts pride themselves in being a part of the ironically titled criminal justice system, a system that excessively punishes the impoverished and under-reprimands the wealthy.
Former President Richard Nixon is to blame for the massive gap between lengthy and transient sentences based on socio-economic status. In 1971, the Republican leader declared a so-called “war on drugs” that transformed into a capitalized battle between the White House and people of color.
Nixon’s own Presidential Assistant for Domestic Affairs, John Ehrlichman, eventually admitted, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
At best, this War on Drugs was a desperate cry for help by Nixon that forced 456,000 underrepresented Americans into prison for non-violent drug offenses.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan further promoted this racist loophole by signing the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law, causing the legion of people incarcerated for drug abuses to rise from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997. Essentially, this act enforced mandatory minimum sentencing- a doctrine requiring courts to sentence drug abusers of certain narcotics to a minimum amount of time. In other words, minimum sentencing laws force judges to deliver fixed sentences regardless of any other factors. While at first glance, this doctrine seems perfectly logical as it would be unfair to sentence one drug abuser to a lengthier time than the other. However, the issue does not arise in the mandatory minimum alone, but in the fact that the possession of both five grams of crack cocaine or 5,000 grams of powder cocaine earn the same ten-year sentence. The issue in prison sentencing arises in the fact that the 88 percent majority of crack cocaine possessors are black, while the 32 percent majority of powder cocaine incumbents are white.
Today, 45.9% of federal inmates are imprisoned for drug offences, making up the majority of the federal prison population. In contrast, 6.3% have contributed to extortion, fraud, or bribery felonies. This is greatly due to the fact that drug offenses, stereotypical to blue-collar and inner-city neighborhoods, have mandatory minimum sentences, while fraud offenses that mostly occur in white-collar communities have mere federally recommended sentences.
President Donald Trump’s white-collar campaign manager, Paul Manafort is one of the many privileged that benefit from these federally recommended sentences. After being convicted on eight counts of bank and tax fraud that amounted anywhere from $12 million to $30 million, Manafort was first sentenced to a meager four years in prison. A week later, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson added three and a half years to his sentence for misleading the U.S. government on issues dealing with foreign lobbying work.
“All of this appeared to reflect his ongoing contempt for and the belief that he had the right to manipulate these proceedings, and the court order did not apply to him. All of this was a problem for me because court is one of those places where facts still matter,” Jackson said.
However, it was the foremost judgment that explicitly depicted Manafort’s white-collar status working in his favor in the American court of law. There is no question that taking away the five-plus mansions and notable job position would have resulted in a sentence that Manafort rightfully deserved. His unlawful actions and unfair sentence referenced the larger elephant in the room: the American criminal justice system babies the rich while neglecting the poor.
Slimy sentencing methods are not limited to mandatory minimum sentencing. Even Trump cannot deny that the American criminal justice system needs to reassess their priorities. On Dec. 21, 2018, the Republican President signed the First Step Act, a bill that calls for the reduction of prison sentences for federal inmates deemed unlikely to commit future crimes, the allowance of 2,500 crack-cocaine offenders to petition for an early release, and the requirement that an inmate’s facility be located within 500 miles of their hometown. In other words, this bill creates a minuscule dent in the major issues of the prison system. There are multiple holes in this reform measure, the largest being that it only impacts roughly 2,500 federally imprisoned for crack-cocaine out of the total 2.1 million incarcerated. That being said, this bill impacts a handful of the mass incarcerated as most offenders of crack-cocaine are locked up in state, not federal, prisons.
On top of that, while the bill passed by an 87-12 vote in the Senate, some of those 12 in opposition continue to think of the bill as “a violation of American public safety.” For those 12, anyone with melanin skin, an empty wallet, and five grams of crack cocaine is a larger national threat than a school shooter.
If our politicians continue to prioritize the imprisonment of a black drug dealer over a white, million dollar embezzler, the First Step Act may also be the last.