A Senate vote on federal criminal justice reform is a long overdue good start

December 17, 2018 5:00 am

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush held up a bag of crack cocaine during a televised address on drug strategy. Media outlets later reported that drug agents lured a dealer to Lafayette Square to make the buy so the president could say the drugs were purchased across the street from the White House. (George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

In early 1987, I was assigned the city cops and courts beat at The Richmond News Leader. My tenure on that beat coincided with the rapid increase in the city’s murder rate, which at one point was the second highest in the country.

It was a horrible time in the city, especially on the East End and North Side, where much of the killing was taking place. That carnage was driven by two things — guns and drugs, particularly crack cocaine.

Those of us working the police beats at the two daily newspapers and in the newsrooms of the local television stations felt like all we did was write about death.

We’d see each other at the crime scenes, describe to our readers and viewers what we knew about the murder, and then try to find out something about the victim. We genuinely wanted, I think, to show that these victims, who were mostly poor, African-American young men and boys, were human beings.

They had lives that were now taken away.

The local news media did a lot of things right in covering the rising murder rate. Our just-the-facts approach kept readers informed and kept the reporters out of the way.

But in hindsight, we did a few things wrong.

One was keeping a running total of the number of homicides. The first murder of the year was duly reported as the first murder of the year. Every murder after that was given its proper number. It got to be a point of contention. People complained, but we took the position that we were just doing our jobs, just being accurate.

One cold night toward the end of December in 1988 I was at a crime scene where yet another young black man had been shot to death and I heard the chanting of the local children gathered outside the police tape: “99, 99, 99, 99.”

New Year’s Eve brought the total to 100.

I think now we shouldn’t have kept that running total, which we did for years. We shouldn’t have treated a murder as just another in an ongoing story; we should have treated each as its own story.

Another mistake was buying into the law-and-order narrative. Those were the days of “three strikes and you’re out,” and “truth in sentencing.” Those were the days when a governor could get elected by promising to build more prisons and to lock up as many people as possible.

Those were the days of President George H.W. Bush’s expansion of the old war on drugs. President Nixon had started the war on drugs in the early 1970s. But Bush really kicked it into overdrive. (Remember when the cops set up a teenager to sell crack in Lafayette Square across the street from the White House so they could give the drugs to Bush to display during a televised address from the Oval Office?)

The thinking was that the best way to combat drugs was to lock up as many drug users as possible.

The laws were also changed to increase penalties, especially for possession of crack cocaine, more prevalent in the black community, over powdered cocaine, which was a drug of choice in the white world. (Lest anyone think this kind of thinking was limited to Republican politicians, let it be known that Bill Clinton fell right in line and in fact made matters worse in the 1990s.)

The news media went along with the political narrative. What we didn’t get, or at least didn’t talk about, was that use of the drugs wasn’t driving the murder rate; that fact that the drugs being used were illegal was driving the murder rate. And the crackdown on crack was making it worse.

Among the problems with buying and selling illegal drugs, that is, working in the illegal drug industry, is that when a dealer has problems — when his drugs are stolen, when he’s robbed of cash or shorted by a supplier —  he can’t call the police.  

He literally takes the law into his own hands. And since there aren’t a lot of community jails in the neighborhoods, there’s no fitting the punishment to the crime. The street punishment for committing any crime against a drug dealer is death.

Now, finally, some people are beginning to the see the error of the old ways.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, has said the Senate will be allowed to vote on actual criminal justice reform.

The First Step Act would reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences; back off on mandatory minimum sentences; ease the “three-strikes” rule; increase the amount of time off an inmate can get for serving “good time” and allow inmates to participate in vocational training.

While the bill only applies to federal inmates, it’s a good start. And it sets a precedent that local and state authorities can follow.

According to an article in my local paper, the Chesterfield Observer, the newly elected Chesterfield County commonwealth’s attorney has also taken some first steps.

Scott Miles, elected in November to serve the final year of Billy Davenport’s four-year term, said he intends to downgrade nonviolent drug prosecution charges from felonies to misdemeanors. Simple marijuana charges will no longer land a person in jail.

He also said his office will no longer request cash bail. If a defendant is a threat, Miles’s office will ask that he be kept in jail. Otherwise, he should be released without bail while awaiting trial.

Again, these are good first steps. And they have the advantage of not being proven — as was the old “law and order” approach — to be abject failures.

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Gordon Hickey
Gordon Hickey

Gordon Hickey is a lifelong reporter and editor who worked for more than 20 years at The Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times-Dispatch covering law enforcement, courts, and politics. He also served as Gov. Tim Kaine's press secretary and most recently was director of communications at the Virginia State Bar.