There was applause this week when President Obama signed legislation cutting the federal penalties for possession of crack cocaine.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 is an overdue correction of a 20-year-old legal distinction that tended to punish blacks more severely than whites by mandating longer prison terms for crack cocaine violations than for those involving powder cocaine.
African Americans account for more than 80% of federal crack cocaine convictions; whites and Latinos make up the majority — more than 70% — of those convicted in cases involving powder cocaine.
The tough crack sentences, mandatory prison terms for possession of even small amounts, were born of public panic over violent crime and social ills that accompanied the crack epidemic that began sweeping through the nation’s big cities in the 1980s.
Over time, the penalties were widely perceived to be unfair. Even as drug use and violence waned, small-time users were still being saddled with prison records that made them unemployable and sent many back to using or selling drugs.
This week’s sentencing change is welcome, and the celebration over the legislation understandable. But it should not be allowed to obscure a broader, darker reality: Crack cocaine has taken a profound toll over the years on families, neighborhoods and communities.
In low-income neighborhoods of South Los Angeles, the enduring lure of the cheap, potent drug “has changed the architecture of the community,” in the words of Los Angeles Police Department Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger.
The crack epidemic rolled through some lives like a wildfire and burned slowly through others over years. Crack steered fathers to jail, lured mothers into the streets and left children to raise themselves in neighborhoods bristling with despair and anger.
Their families and communities were left scorched and in many cases, still smoldering.
As a reporter, I spent more than 20 years covering South Los Angeles, and the impact of drug addiction was a reality I encountered with painful regularity.
Crack’s reach was made plain in big, public ways: exploding foster care rolls, rising crime, overloaded emergency rooms, skid row’s growing underclass.
But it hurt most to hear the individual stories that documented the drug’s societal toll:
From the police officer who took a 9-year-old into custody for stealing food from a liquor store and then found that the boy was trying to feed his three young siblings. Their mom had been out on a drug binge for days.
The teacher who told me about a bright student who dropped out of Jordan High because he was tired of being teased by classmates who bragged that his mother had offered them sex for drugs.
And a social worker who had rescued a 12-year-old girl from a crack house, where she had been traded by her father for a $20 rock.
Those memories came flooding back last month when I visited the street where the accused murderer in the Grim Sleeper cases lived, and then again this week as I read Chris Goffard’s skid row series and another story in The Times about the serial killers who stalked South L.A. decades ago.
More than 100 women were killed during a period, 1984-1994, in which at least five serial killers — including Grim Sleeper suspect Lonnie David Franklin Jr. — stalked the streets of South Los Angeles, according to our front page story. An addiction to crack cocaine was a common ingredient.
Franklin’s elderly neighbor William Harris remembers when the crack epidemic was raging three decades ago and dealers and gangbangers descended on his quiet block along 51st Street near Western Avenue.
Drug buys took place on his front lawn, murders at the apartment building on the corner. You couldn’t let your children play outside, he said, or open your windows, even in the heat.
His street looks peaceful now, but the era’s collateral damage remains: homes with iron gates and window bars, a converted garage where crack smokers still gather and a void in many homes left by family members — Harris’ two grown sons included — who are missing and still lost to drugs.
And there is a new status quo, made evident by the glass crack pipes that are for sale and on display next to the condoms at gas stations and liquor stores.
“It’s a cold attitude now, like anything goes,” Harris told me. The crime and mayhem have diminished, but what bothers him most is the casual acceptance of petty crime and disrespectful treatment of “young ladies” that the epidemic spawned. “It’s changed the way we feel about each other.”
And that’s a problem that can’t be resolved by tweaking jail terms and sending inmates home.
Statistics suggest the epidemic has passed. Crime rates, hospital admissions, foster care rolls have all declined. The crack smokers are getting old, winding down or dying. The open-air drug markets are gone, and the rituals have moved inside.
Now, the dealer is less likely to be the gangbanger calling out from the street corner than the young, jobless neighbor who grew up watching his mother cooking crack on the kitchen stove and learned how to hustle to survive.
Crack addiction has proved to be notoriously difficult to dislodge. “There are so many triggers for relapse,” said former addict and drug counselor Don Hashima. And there are so few clear paths to redemption for people hurled by addiction to society’s margins.
The sentencing changes are a good first step. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the new guidelines should save $42 million over the next five years by reducing the prison population.
Some of that money should go into creating drug abuse programs tailored to the special challenges posed by crack addiction.
But more ought to go into ameliorating the social problems — damaged children, fractured families, overwhelmed schools and social institutions — that will outlast the epidemic and the addicts.
The wave may have crested and passed. Now it’s time to take a look at what the tide brought in.