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July 30, 2010

"The slow fade of Len Bias' ghost"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary in today's Dallas Morning News by Mark Osler. In addition to providing a useful reminder of the way the 100-1 crack/powder ratio came to be, it also ends with a fitting summary of where we are now. Here is how the piece starts and ends:

Twenty-four years ago, a talented young player from the University of Maryland was drafted No. 2 overall by the Boston Celtics. Two days later, he was dead of a drug overdose.

This simple tragedy led to one of the most frivolous detours in American history – the onerous federal sentencing statute for crack, which was finally amended by Congress on Wednesday. The story of Len Bias is a wonderful example of the potential dangers of legislation based on anecdote rather than study and analysis....

It is pathetic that it took 24 years to fix this problem. It is also disheartening that this legislation applies only to future cases and does not change the sentences of those already in prison. Still, it is change for the better. It is rare to reverse the ratchet on criminal sentences, and, in amending the rules on crack, Congress has finally begun to undo the hasty and untoward effects of Len Bias' ghost haunting the halls of government.

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July 30, 2010 at 11:14 AM | Permalink


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To claim that someone who overdosed on cocaine is resposible for the 100-to-1 disparity between powder and crack is historically simplistic and ignores many other contributing factors of the time, notably LA's surge in gang violence. In that respect, it's like saying the Civil War was fought to free slaves. It's only part of the story.

Posted by: Bill B. | Jul 30, 2010 4:19:18 PM

Agreed! Crack cocaine use and the violent gangs distributing it in open-air markets decimated black communities in the late 80's. Tougher penalties for crack cocaine were sought out and sponsored by black legislators like Al Sharpton and Charles Rangel.

The above doesn't fit neatly with the Left's predilection to see white racism at every turn.

Posted by: mjs | Jul 30, 2010 9:22:07 PM

mjs: When and in what jurisdiction was the rabble-rousing Rev. Al Sharpton a legislator? (Hint: never and nowhere.) Since 50% of what you wrote is demonstrably bogus, I wonder if you'd be willing to provide a source for the other 50% (Rangel's position in 1988)? I don't say you're wrong on this, but at this point I don't trust your word on it. (I'm just ignoring your political sloganeering; only interested in the historical facts.)

Posted by: Peter G | Jul 30, 2010 9:38:33 PM

Peter G:

Black activists and legislators were the first to sound the alarm about the dangers of crack cocaine as documented by Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy in "Race, Crime, and Law."

Posted by: mjs | Jul 31, 2010 3:29:20 PM

Professor Kennedy's book says (p. 370) that African-American legislators were almost evenly divided in 1988 on the crack bill. And as pointed out in Prof. Paul Butler's rather devastating review of Kennedy's book (111 Harv.L.Rev. 1270, 1998), none of those whom Kennedy quotes advocated a disparity in treatment between crack and powder, although they did suggest harsher penalties for cocaine offenses generally. Rangel, I see, was indeed one of those. In a 1997 letter to the editor of the Wall St. Journal, however (Butler notes, at 1279 n.44) Rangel declared that his position in 1988 had been wrong, describing the 100:1 ratio set there as "biased and flawed."

Posted by: Peter G | Aug 1, 2010 5:30:59 PM

Peter G:

Impressive and expeditious follow-up!

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