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For Many, Crack Cocaine Sentencing Reform Comes Too Late

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Jailed 34 times, mom reclaims a stolen future

By Chris Levister –

Meet 50 year old Diane Sapp. Her imposing stature and calm demeanor command attention. On this stinging hot July morning the former San Bernardino Valley College scholar and basketball standout is working her way through a tidal wave of students waiting to register for fall classes.

She glances at the flashing take-anumber sign above her head and winces.

“They just called 12. I’m number 52.”

She knows patience is the companion of wisdom. For her, all wisdom may be reduced to two words – wait and hope.

Thirty one years ago Sapp walked away from a Valley basketball scholarship, hung up her sneakers and fell face toward into a life of crack cocaine addiction, prostitution and panhandling.

“Crack sped into my Westside neighborhood like a Mack truck out of control, and it slammed me hard,” said the former San Bernardino Sun newspaper machine operator and at-risk youth coordinator.

“I remember my mother saying, ‘your name is in the newspaper as a suspect who ran from police during a crack cocaine raid’. Sapp says what had been a personal dark secret was now an awakening."

She says as crack tightened its grip, she tried to scream for help but nothing was being vocalized.

Sadly she says the prevailing opinion was “nobody puts a gun to black heads and demand they smoke crack. We don't have to participate. Isn't it really our fault?”

For decades she became the ghostly face of America’s ugly under belly – walking along Mount Vernon Avenue begging for change that went straight to buy the drug that had wasted away her body as surely as it had her personality, her future and her sense of self-worth.

She ate rarely and slept where she could, usually to substitute unconsciousness for the wide-awake craving that consumed her life.

"The men would ask if they could take me home for sex. I'd come right out with it. 'Yeah, you can take me home. I need some money for food!' "

In 1997 Sapp did prison time for selling crack to an undercover officer..

Months after her release, the prison door revolved again for stealing liquor and shrimp from a local supermarket. She was arrested 29 times for possession of drug paraphernalia.

According to U.S. Sentencing Commission law enforcement and the courts were all too willing to relegate non-violent crack users to years of incarceration while going easy on powdered cocaine users who were usually white.

The human consequences of locking up non-violent offenders for long federally mandated prison terms, was like a cluster bomb. “You have to wonder why it took so long to make drug sentencing guidelines fair, especially since everybody knew the laws are unjust,” said Sapp.

The argument for reform has always been twofold: sending someone to federal prison for five years for selling the equivalent of a few sugar packets of cocaine is unreasonably harsh, and it disproportionately affects minorities (almost 80 percent of those sentenced are African-Americans, even though most users and sellers of crack are not black)..

“Seen as just punishment the disparity in sentencing got rid of all our moral values,’’ she said.

The effects went beyond the lives of those locked up. It affected family life, neighborhoods, the lives of children, says Sapp’s 25-year-old daughter Karen who was raised by an aunt.

“Crack cocaine robbed me of my mother. She wasn’t around to teach me right from wrong, buy crayons, and ice cream. Drugs stole her future and forever changed mine.” Karen 25, currently lives in northern California, attends college and works as an administrator in the fast food industry.

After four decades of an unsuccessful and costly war on drugs, a government commission is saying enough is enough.

Thousands of mostly African Americans locked up for offenses involving crack cocaine can get their sentences reduced as a result of the new “Fair Sentencing” Act announced last month.

The law brings penalties for crack “rock” cocaine more closely in line with those for powdered cocaine. The decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission applies to approximately 1 in 17 inmates in the federal system.

Congress last year substantially lowered the sentences for crack-related crimes such as possession and trafficking, changing a law enacted in 1986.

“I believe that the commission has no choice but to make this right,” said Ketanji Brown Jackson, a vice chairwoman of the commission. “I say justice demands this result.”

The NAACP was among the groups praising the commission's action. About 85 percent of the inmates expected to benefit from the decision are black.

"This is just another step in us righting a wrong, fixing failed criminal justice policy," said Robert Rooks, national criminal justice director for the NAACP.

Prisoners will have to petition a judge for a sentence reduction, and requests will be decided on a case-by-case basis, with the court taking into consideration the defendant's behavior in prison and danger to society.

According to the commission, approximately 12,000 of the roughly 200,000 people in federal prisons will be eligible to have their sentences cut. The average reduction is expected to be about three years. Inmates convicted under state law will not be affected.

For Diane and Karen Sapp the new law is bittersweet.

Rummaging among deep wounds, daily improvements and setbacks, mother and daughter are slowly reclaiming their stolen futures. Diane is making the transition from homelessness and recidivism to self sufficiency at San Bernardino’s Time For Change Foundation.

She has come full circle to Valley College where she is pursuing an associate degree in drug and alcohol case management.

As the long class registration line inches forward, Diane Sapp stares at the As and Bs on her last report card and wonders how a five-letter word that wasn’t in the lexicon 40 years ago could have stolen her family, her future and forever changed the black community.

“The real world is not easy to live in,” she laments. “Time heals what reason cannot.”

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