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June 2004
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Crack Babies

Jim at Vice Squad has a post about the historically volatile issue of crack babies and notes that the May 26, 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association provides a new study that looks at cocaine-exposed infants when they reach four years old. Here are the study’s conclusions:

Prenatal cocaine exposure was not associated with lower full-scale, verbal, or performance IQ scores but was associated with an increased risk for specific cognitive impairments and lower likelihood of IQ above the normative mean at 4 years. A better home environment was associated with IQ scores for cocaine-exposed children that are similar to scores in nonexposed children.

Yep. That’s the current science of crack babies — no association with lower intelligence scores. Yes, there are true dangers of mothers addicted to crack, but most of those dangers relate to the increased use of alcohol with crack and the poor home environment with drug addicts as parents.
Now flash back to the 1980s, when the crack baby scare reached a peak of national hysteria. As reported in a 1995 Mother Jones article:

Social workers, foster parents, doctors, teachers, and journalists put forward unsettling anecdotes about the ‘crack babies’ they had seen, all participating in a sleight of hand so elegant in its simplicity that they fooled even themselves. They talked of babies shrieking like cats and refusing to bond, of children unable to focus on a task–and then they slipped in the part they should have tested, attributing these problems to prenatal cocaine use. Reporters went into hospital nurseries and special schools and borrowed the images of premature babies or bawling African-American preschoolers to illustrate their crack-baby stories. Carol Cole, who taught at the Salvin Special Education School in Los Angeles, remembers reporters asking if they could get pictures of the children trembling.

The crack baby quickly became a symbol for the biological determinism recently promulgated in its rawest form by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in The Bell Curve: These (mostly black) bug-eyed morons weren’t quite human–and no amount of attention could make them so. In the late ‘8os, some commentators predicted they would become America’s “biologic underclass.” By 1991, John Silber, president of Boston University, went so far as to lament the expenditure of so many health care dollars on “crack babies who won’t ever achieve the intellectual development to have consciousness of God.”

Drug warriors had even taken to stating things like the “fact” that “375,000 crack babies are born annually in the United States, each one with developmental deficits costing $500,000 to $1 million in medical care” (and most of the media at the time neglected to do the simple arithmetic that would have shown those numbers to be impossible).
The myth of the crack baby epidemic was debunked in the early 1990s, but the damage had already been done, in one of the most blatantly racist episodes of the drug war – one that has caused incredible damage to our country – the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This act created mandatory prison terms are triggered exclusively by the quantity and type of drug involved in the offense.
As indicated in the February, 1995 Sentencing Report to Congress:

The 1986 Act was expedited through Congress. As a result, its passage left behind a limited legislative record. … The sentencing provisions of the Act were initiated in August 1986, following the July 4th congressional recess during which public concern and media coverage of cocaine peaked as a result of the June 1986 death of NCAA basketball star Len Bias. Apparently because of the heightened concern, Congress dispensed with much of the typical deliberative legislative process, including committee hearings.

I swear, when Congress does this kind of thing, they should all be investigated on ethics charges for gross dereliction of duty, and violation of their oath.
Part of that act included a 100:1 sentencing quantity ratio between powder and crack cocaine (5 grams of crack or 500 grams of powder triggered the 5 year minimum, and 50 grams of crack or 5,000 grams of powder triggered the 10 year minimum). That sentencing disparity came in part from the hysteria sweeping the country regarding the exaggerated stories that crack was highly addictive, connected to violence, and, of course, caused an epidemic of crack babies. The fear of crack baby was specifically discussed in the 1988 follow-up law that created a minimum of 5 years prison for possession of 1-5 grams of crack.
The result? Racial inequities in sentencing. 85 percent of those subject to the enhanced sentencing for crack cocaine have been black.
Is it just coincidence that the recent prison report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics noted that 12 percent of all black males in their twenties were in jails or prison?

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