In Congress, then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Democrat whose Boston constituents couldn’t stop talking about Bias’s death, saw a political opportunity. Throughout the 1980s, the federal government had waded deeper into the war on drugs, part of a trend spawned by the turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s. Bias’s death offered a perfect chance to capitalize on the growing public outcry, especially over crack. “The speaker realizes, if the Democrats take the lead on this, if we play it right, maybe we can win the Senate back,” Eric E. Sterling said recently. He was assistant counsel to the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime in 1986 and now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a Silver Spring nonprofit that educates the public about criminal justice issues.
O’Neill convened the steering and policy committee of the House Democrats and moved the formation of tougher drug laws to the top of the agenda. Sterling and other staffers were told to draft a law that would punish high-level traffickers, but they didn’t know what amount of drugs would qualify someone as “high-level” and, with the midterm election campaign season just a few days away, they didn’t have time to determine that, Sterling said. No hearings were held.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established the mandatory minimum drug sentences that remain in effect today. It imposed a five-year mandatory prison term for first-time trafficking of five or more grams of crack or 500 grams of powder, and a 10-year mandatory minimum for first-time trafficking of 50 grams of crack or five kilos of powder. In drug policy circles, this is known as the “100-to-1 drug quantity ratio,” and it has hit African Americans hardest because they are more likely to live in the neighborhoods where crack cocaine is used and sold, even though, in absolute numbers, most crack users are white. In 2006, 82 percent of crack offenders sentenced under federal law were African American, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency set up to develop a national sentencing policy for the federal courts.
Taken from this story about Michael Short, recently released after serving almost twenty years for dealing crack. I’d thought for a while that black legislators had actually come up with the draconian anti-drug laws that had people spending much more time dealing crack than cocaine. But I was dead wrong. I just wrote about Nathaniel Abraham. The quick response is that this is an example of rehabilitation done right. And this wouldn’t be…wrong necessarily. But the difference here is that Michael would have most likely been on this path had he served two years rather than almost twenty. This policy, created as noted above for crass political reasons, destroyed a generation’s worth of social and cultural capital.