“Cocaine Congressman” Trey Radel, as headline writers have rebranded him, voted to allow states to drug test all food stamp recipients. Congress, it turns out, should have drug-tested him.
The 37-year-old former TV reporter and radio show host arrived in Washington this year from his southwest Florida district with the same broom-wielding, housecleaning fervor as his fellow tea party-backed Republicans.
On his Twitter feeds he called himself a “hip-hop conservative.” Whatever that means, it is no more peculiar than the revelation by Mother Jones magazine during his campaign that he ran a business called sexguideonline.com. It bought website domain names in English and Spanish related to pornographic sex themes. At least, he apparently defends the First Amendment.
He further showed his love for freedom by cosponsoring a bill to allow shorter mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.
That support took on ironic significance this past week when Radel became the first sitting congressman in 31 years, according to the Associated Press, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor drug-possession charge.
FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents swooped in to arrest him after he bought 3.5 grams of cocaine for $250 in a late October sting operation in Washington’s fashionable DuPont Circle neighborhood. Charging documents described Radel as having a frequent-buyer’s reputation in the neighborhood.
Still, his story hardly matched that of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford for colorfulness. As Radel faced sentencing, Ford was stripped of his powers by his City Council for smoking crack, drinking and boorish behavior — an offense that by itself would have been enough to rattle usually sedate Canada.
After Radel pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court, he was sentenced to a year of probation and will undergo substance abuse treatment in Florida.
House Republicans did not rush to escort Radel out the door, even though he reportedly waited three weeks before telling them about his bust. Speaker John Boehner said before sentencing that the matter should be left up to the courts, Radel, his family and his constituents.
Indeed, it would hardly be the first time that a politician continued to serve after a misdemeanor conviction. Voters can be very forgiving of known lawbreakers, as opposed to other politicians who just keep you guessing.
“Today, I checked myself into a facility to seek treatment and counseling,” Radel said in a statement. “It is my hope, through this process, I will come out a better man.”
I wish him luck. Unlike his more outraged critics, I don’t think Radel should have been sent to jail. Quite the opposite, I think his case offers a good example of why a lot of other nonviolent, first-arrest drug offenders shouldn’t be in jail, either.
Contrast his case, for example, with another high-profile District of Columbia case, the arrest of then-mayor Marion Barry for taking a hit of crack cocaine in an FBI hotel room sting in 1990. He was sentenced to six months in a federal prison.
His sentence could have been worse if the video had not provided so much evidence to back the mayor’s argument that he was a victim of FBI entrapment.
The fact that Barry is black and Radel is white doesn’t mean that racism played a role in either case. But the differences in their sentences illustrates a persistent problem: Despite recent reforms, a racial disparity persists between the minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine.
The Fair Sentencing Act that Congress passed in August of 2010 reduced the 100-to-one disparity between crack and powder cocaine that was created during the anti-crack uproar of the 1980s. But it still remains way too huge at about 18-to-one. Fairness should never end at the color line.
Radel is fortunate to have been sentenced in D.C., where enlightened attitudes led to a special “drug court” in 1993 that is designed to funnel low-level addicts into rehab instead of long-term jail time.
With prison costs skyrocketing, even after overall crime rates declined in the mid-1990s, even states with reputations for tough justice are turning to alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders. Drug addiction should be handled as a disease, not a crime. Trey Radel knows.
Email Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.