Len Bias – the death that ushered in two decades of destruction

A picture named LenBias.jpg
Today, June 19, 2006 is the 20 year anniversary of the death of Len Bias. Bias was a University of Maryland student — but not just any student — he was a star basketball player who had been drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics. Less than 48 hours after he was drafted, he died from a cocaine overdose.

Today, there are hundreds of stories in the newspapers about Len Bias, including this AP piece by David Ginsberg. They are stories of lost promise, of what might have been, of basketball and of individuals who have been influenced by the Len Bias legend.

But few even touch on the real story — the fact that Len Bias’s death triggered a (possibly unintentional) near-genocidal attack on the African American population in the United States. Or at the very least, the systematic disenfranchisement of African American males.

Surprised? Skeptical? Read on and see what you think.

The other stories you’ll read today tend toward the wistful and heartwarming. You’ll hear from his mother:

“Many, many people have come to me throughout the [last] 20 years and have told me that the day Len died was the day they stopped using cocaine,” Lonise Bias said […] “I’ve had people stop me in the street and tell me that. They still do, telling me they’ve remained clean since that time and that it was the turning point in their lives.”

And that’s a valid point of discussion on this anniversary, and certainly one to help a mother realize that some good has come from her son’s death.

But the other story is less positive, and involves political posturing, race, and a drug war out of control. And for that, we need to see what happened in the political arena immediately following Len Bias’s death.

We start with Dan Baum’s excellent book “Smoke and Mirrors : The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure” (p. 225)

Immediately upon returning from the July 4 recess, Tip O’Neill called an emergency meeting of the crime-related committee chairmen. Write me some goddamn legislation, he thundered. All anybody up in Boston is talking about is Len Bias. The papers are screaming for blood. We need to get out front on this now. This week. Today. The Republicans beat us to it in 1984 and I don’t want that to happen again. I want dramatic new initiatives for dealing with crack and other drugs. If we can do this fast enough, he said to the Democratic leadership arrayed around him, we can take the issue away from the White House.

In life, Len Bias was a terrific basketball player. In death, he became the Archuke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs. What came before had been only skirmishing; the real Drug War had yet to begin. Within weeks, the country would be marching, bayonets fixed.

The result was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, complete with mandatory minimums, asset forfeiture, and loads of drug war goodies.

Eric E. Sterling, who was counsel to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary and was involved in the passage of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, is now President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. He has a unique first-hand perspective on what happened, and here’s how he tells it to PBS’s Frontline:

In 1986, the Democrats in Congress saw a political opportunity to outflank Republicans by “getting tough on drugs” after basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. In the 1984 election the Republicans had successfully accused Democrats of being soft on crime. The most important Democratic political leader, House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill, was from Boston, MA. The Boston Celtics had signed Bias. During the July 4 congressional recess, O’Neill’s constituents were so consumed with anger and dismay about Bias’ death, O’Neill realized how powerful an anti-drug campaign would be.

O’Neill knew that for Democrats to take credit for an anti-drug program in November elections, the bill had to get out of both Houses of Congress by early October. That required action on the House floor by early September, which meant that committees had to finish their work before the August recess. Since the idea was born in early July, the law-writing committees had less than a month to develop the ideas, to write the bills to carry out those ideas, and to get comments from the relevant government agencies and the public at large.

One idea was considered for the first time by the House Judiciary Committee four days before the recess began. It had tremendous political appeal as “tough on drugs.” This was the creation of mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases. It was a type of penalty that had been removed from federal law in 1970 after extensive and careful consideration. But in 1986, no hearings were held on this idea. No experts on the relevant issues, no judges, no one from the Bureau of Prisons, or from any other office in the government, provided advice on the idea before it was rushed through the committee and into law. Only a few comments were received on an informal basis. After bouncing back and forth between the Democratic controlled House and the Republican controlled Senate as each party jockeyed for poitical advantage, The Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 finally passed both houses a few weeks before the November elections.

So what happened as a result of this new “mandatory minimum” sentencing?

Again we turn to Sterling, (“Drug Policy: A Challenge of Values” by Eric Sterling)

Within a few years, it appeared that blacks were being disproportionately sentenced for the crack cocaine offense. Congress called upon the U.S. Sentencing Commission to study the impact of mandatory minimum sentences (P.L.101-647, Nov. 29, 1990, Sec. 1703). The Commission found that the disparity in sentencing harshness between white and black offenders had increased (U.S. Sentencing Commission, 1991, p. 82). Congress and the Administration did nothing to address this problem.

By 1995, no white person had been prosecuted in federal court under the 1986 crack mandatory minimums in Los Angeles and other major cities, although hundreds of blacks had been (Weikel, 1995). Another study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (1995) found the 100-to-1 powder cocaine-crack cocaine variation seemed to have an invidious impact on black offenders. For example, 88.3 percent of the mandatory crack sentences were imposed on blacks in FY 1993. The Commission recommended changes in the guidelines (60 Fed. Reg. 25,074, May 10, 1995), but for the first time Congress voted to disapprove the Commission’s proposed amendments to the sentencing guidelines (P.L. 104-38, Oct. 30, 1995).

So what’s the 100-1 threshhold disparity about?

Amoung of drug that triggers
federal mandatory minimum cocaine sentences
(for first time offenders)
Crack cocaine Powder Cocaine
5-year sentence 5 grams 500 grams
10-year sentence 50 grams 5000 grams (5 kilos)

So it takes 1/100th the amount of crack to trigger the same mandatory minimum as powder.

Remember, when Len Bias died in 1986, he played basketball for the University of Maryland. Let’s see what happened in Maryland after his death.

From “Race and Incarceration in Maryland: Executive Summary: A Policy Brief Commissioned by Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus” (October 20th, 2003)

In 1986 [the year Len Bias died], White and African American drug offenders represented similar proportions of all those sent to prison in the state (17% and 15%, respectively). But by 1999, nearly half (47%) of all African American prison admissions in Maryland were for drug offenses, compared with 21% for Whites. African American are 28% of the general population, 68% of all people arrested for drug offenses in Maryland, and 90% of the people imprisoned in the state for drug offenses.

The increase in African American admissions to prisons for drug offenses was 18 times greater than the increase in White drug offender admissions between 1986 and 1999. African American admissions for drug offenses represented 94% of growth of the state’s use of prison for drug offenses. The African American rate of drug prison admissions per 100,000 citizens grew at 8 times the rate of the White drug prisoner rate over the period. In 1999, African American youth represented 93% of all young people admitted to prison for a drug offense. Between 1986 and 1999, African American youth represented 96% of the new youth prison admissions for drug offenses.

And, of course, it wasn’t just in Maryland. This movement toward increased incarceration in general, and increasingly racially disparate incarceration was happening across the country, to the point of horrendous proportions.


  • African Americans now serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (57.2 months) as whites do for a violent offense (58.8 months).
  • 81.4% of crack cocaine defendants in 2002 were African American, while about two-thirds of crack cocaine users in the general population are white or hispanic.
  • The average sentence for a crack cocaine offense in 2002 (119 months) was more than three years greater than for powder cocaine (78 months).

… and in the states:

  • In 10 states African American men are sent to state prison on drug charges at rates that are 27 to 57 times greater than those of white men in the same state. (Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, Human Rights Watch, May 2000, p. 17)
  • When sentenced for drug offenses in state courts, whites serve an average of 27 months and blacks an average of 46 months. (Justice on Trial: Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and Leadership Conference Education Fund,p. 25)

The government still has failed to address any meaningful reform to the Len Bias legacy, so the problem will most likely continue to get worse.

Now and then, some are trying to make a difference. Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Presnell in Orlando, FL refused to apply the Federal crack cocaine sentencing guidelines. He ruled:

This arbitrary and discriminatory disparity between powder and crack cocaine implicates the Section 3553(a)(2)(A) factors. Unless one assumes the penalties for powder cocaine are vastly too low, then the far-higher penalties for crack are at odds with the seriousness of the offense. The absence of a logical rationale for such a disparity and its disproportionate impact on one historically disfavored race promotes disrespect for the law and suggests that the resulting sentences are unjust. Accordingly, these statutory factors weigh heavily against the imposition of a Guidelines sentence.

The fact that this sentencing disparity has not yet been corrected by Congress is a powerful racist stain on our government. And there has been a disturbing lack of leadership in this area by black politicians, combined with racist co-opting of the black community by our drug warriors.

Now certainly, not every aspect of this story can be specifically attributed to Len Bias (and the results can hardly be considered Len’s fault). However, it’s clear that Len Bias’s death served as a catalyst for political activity that resulted in laws a powerful, damaging, and racially disparate effect.

But this is a powerful reminder of what can happen when you combine hysterical media coverage with self-serving politicians. But I repeat myself.

There is a bit of rather perverse poetic justice in this story. The Democrats, in their rush to outdo the Republicans in being “tough on drugs,” helped create a system that disenfranchised a group that traditionally has voted Democratic. In large part because of the war on drugs and mandatory minimums, one in four black men in Florida are not allowed to vote. If the Democrats hadn’t been in such a rush to look as tough on drugs as the Republicans back in 1986, George W. Bush would never have become President in 2000.