The Opioid Crisis and The Effects of Racism During the Crack Epidemic

By: Taylor Sweet

This past summer, a West Virginian judge presided over defendant, Charles York Walker, Jr., in US District Court.[1] Judge Goodwin had seen it all too many times, another defendant entering a guilty plea under a plea deal for using a synthetic drug.[2] But this time, Judge Goodwin decided a plea deal was not the right answer, stating that a trial would be better in this situation.[3] According to the New York Times, approximately 64,000 Americans died from an opioid drug in 2016, and 2017’s numbers are not expected to be any better.[4]  Knowing these numbers, Judge Goodwin decided a trial would show “the dark details of drug distribution and abuse to the community in a way that a plea bargained guilty plea cannot.[5]” While this judicial response is a step in the right direction, it likely could have been prevented had there been a similar response to the crack epidemic of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the crack epidemic ravaged through the country, affecting mostly African American citizens and minorities.[6] America’s response: jail and harsher sentences. “Hundreds of thousands” of black citizens were sentenced to prison with harsh sentences.[7] The result was broken families and African American neighborhoods. Today, many individuals affected by the opioid crisis are treated very differently. The opioid crisis has affected mostly white Americans, but instead of automatic jail time, the judicial system has taken a different approach.[8] Many judges now make decisions based on their knowledge that victims of the opioid crisis need treatment and there has even been a move towards “opioid courts” where instead of automatically being sent to jail, defendants check in with a judge every day to show that they have not relapsed or are sent to a locked inpatient treatment center.[9] Many have suggested that this different response between the two epidemics is simply one thing: systematic racism.[10]

Some claim that if it weren’t for this systematic racism, the country may very well not be in the situation it is today.[11] While it is true that having punishments for selling drugs increases its prices, making it less accessible, there is no indication that harsher sentencing for drug use takes it off the streets.[12]  In the 1980’s and 1990’s, American citizens feared black communities and the violence that resulted from the crack epidemic, leading to the support of mass incarceration.[13] More funding was allocated to locking up victims of the crack epidemic, whether they were a dealer or a user, rather than funding addiction and mental health counseling.[14] Because of the focus centered on incarcerating African Americans and less on treatment of the victims of a drug epidemic, the country is in the situation that we are today.

Going forward, it is important that the justice system continue to attempt to lessen access to opioids, but also understand that harsher sentencing does not stop drug epidemics.[15] Many suggest that we, as American citizens, should also look back on the former crack epidemic and gain perspective knowing that racism can have unexpected negative effects.[16]  We should take Judge Goodwin’s example and look at each defendant as the human being with flaws, who may be stuck and require help instead of harsh prison sentences. Future prosecutors and judges need to ensure that they chase down the worst of the worst, but maybe for others, pursue fewer prison sentencing and provide more information for counseling services. Hopefully, our justice system will take on this serious issue with the new perspective we have learned from the past epidemic and stop the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

 


[1] See United States v. Walker, No. 2:17-CR-00010, 2017 WL 2766452, at *1 (S.D.W. Va. June 26, 2017) (stating the procedural background of the case).

[2] See id. (explaining that the judge made his decision based on the ongoing opioid crisis).

[3] See id.

[4] See Josh Katz, The First Count of Fentanyl Deaths in 2016: Up 540% in Three Years, N.Y. Times (Sept. 2, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/02/upshot/fentanyl-drug-overdose-deaths.html (explaining the statistics of the opioid crisis).

[5] See Debra Cassens Weiss, Federal judge rejects plea deal in drug case, says trial can reveal ‘dark details’ of opioid crisis, ABA Journal (July 6, 2017), http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/federal_judge_rejects_plea_deal_in_drug_case_saying_a_trial_can_reveal_dark (quoting the judges reason for his decision).

[6] See Riley Yates and Steve Esack, Law treated black crack addicts more severely than today’s heroin offenders, The Morning Call (Dec. 3, 2016), http://www.mcall.com/news/local/allentown/mc-pennsylvania-war-on-drugs-heroin-versus-crack-epidemic-2-20161203-story.html (explaining the history of the crack epidemic).

[7] See id. (stating the statistics of African Americans who were sent to prison).

[8] See id. (explaining how whites are treated much different today during the opioid crisis than blacks were during the crack epidemic).

[9] See Timothy Williams, This Judge Has a Mission: Keep Defendants Alive, N.Y. Times (Jan. 3, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/us/buffalo-heroin-opioid-court.html.

[10] See German Lopez, The deadliness of the opioid epidemic has roots in America’s failed response to crack, Vox (Oct. 5, 2017), https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/10/2/16328342/opioid-epidemic-racism-addiction (stating that getting help for those affected in the opioid crisis is much more common).

[11] See id. (stating that the opioid crisis may have been prevented if not for racism during the crack epidemic).

[12] See id. (explaining that drug prohibition cuts down on drug access to an extent).

[13] See id. (stating that most American citizens supported harsher sentences during the crack epidemic).

[14] See id. (explaining a story in which a heroin addict could not get into a state-funded treatment center and only got in after being arrested).

[15] See id.

[16] See id.