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The Drug War’s Aftermath: How Federal Crack Prosecutions Drive Institutional Racial Inequality

We are in the midst of a national opioid addiction crisis that rivals the 1980s’ drug crisis involving crack cocaine. So far, the official governmental response to the opioid crisis has been much more measured, treating the problem more as a public health issue than a criminal justice one. Such was not the case with crack cocaine. As some commentators have noted, a major difference between these two crises is the public face of the addict in each instance, as distinguished by race. 

It is hard to overstate the punitive impact of the crack frenzy, built on racialized stereotypes about both crack addicts and their suppliers, and unleashed across the U.S. The federal government led the way in turning the crack panic into legislation, passing draconian sentencing statutes that incorporated a 100-1 powder-crack cocaine weight disparity in the mandatory minimum sentence thresholds. Federal law enforcement increasingly targeted crack cocaine suspects, wielding the punitive power of those statutes to obtain convictions and long sentences in districts across the nation. The majority of crack defendants charged in federal court were black, which directly contributed to growing inequality in the criminal caseloads.

In Crack as Proxy: Aggressive Federal Drug Prosecutions and the Production of Black-White Racial Inequality,we revisit the federal crack war to see what it can tell us about the broader problem of racial inequality in criminal justice today. We examine federal prosecutorial practices after the crack frenzy had faded and many of the myths about crack’s unique dangers had been debunked, to see whether the pursuit of crack cases is associated with black-white inequality. We hypothesized that U.S. Attorneys’ offices that continued to be more aggressive in charging defendants in crack cases, relative to other kinds of drug cases, and relative to case strength and seriousness, would demonstrate higher rates of black-white racial inequality in case outcomes across the entire criminal caseload. 

And that’s what we found.  In particular, the share of crack cases prosecuted in a district in any given year predicted the degree of racial disproportionality in both conviction rates and sentence lengths for all criminal defendants. Put simply, the more crack cases, the more likely that black defendants, relative to white defendants, were prosecuted and convicted in the district, and the longer their sentences. 

For example, as illustrated in the left graph of this figure, federal districts with high levels of crack caseloads had black conviction rates over 8 times higher than white conviction rates. And we found that these prosecution practices did not map onto crack usage patterns, suggesting other factors were at play. It may seem like common sense to predict that crack prosecutions would directly contribute to inequality, given that the federal crack war was infamously and demonstrably waged against black defendants. But even when we removed crack cases from our measures of inequality, crack prosecutions were still associated with racially unequal criminal justice outcomes for other kinds of cases, as illustrated in the right graph.  

This finding of a “spillover effect” warns us that discriminatory practices in federal court are both more pervasive and more insidious than the racialized war on crack. In that sense, crack prosecutions function as the proverbial miner’s canary, signaling broader institutional bias where they prevail that continues to harm people of color today. 

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