Congress must eliminate the disparity between federal criminal sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, the American Civil Liberties Union told the U.S. Sentencing Commission during a hearing today at the Stanford Law School.
The commission held the second in a series of regional public hearings on federal sentencing policy, marking the 25th anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, yesterday and today. The commission sets federal sentencing guidelines that are meant to balance goals such as punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation while providing some certainty and fairness across all of the nation’s federal judicial districts.
But Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, testified that the cocaine disparity – in which a first-time simple possession of five grams of crack cocaine requires the same five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine – is inherently unfair.
That’s a 100-to-one disparity that disproportionately impacts blacks, she testified; ACLU criminal justice lobbyist Jennifer Bellamy explained to me later today that law enforcement resources are more concentrated in minority communities, so although studies estimate that two-thirds of crack users are white or Latino, 80 percent of federal inmates imprisoned for crack offenses are black.
“The creation of crack cocaine mandatory minimum sentences, developed in the wake of a flood of misinformation, illustrates the need for the Commission and Congress to base sentences on facts not fear,” Fredrickson testified. “Only when sentences reflect a review of the best pharmacological and social science evidence will the perception and reality of racial bias be eliminated.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., has introduced H.R. 265, the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2009, which aims to equalize the crack and powder sentencing laws. Among the bill’s 35 cosponsors are Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont; and Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose.
“We hope that in recommending its passage to Congress, the Commission will emphasize that the Jackson Lee bill is a first step towards an end that will only be achieved when mandatory minimums are also eliminated,” Fredrickson testified.
UPDATE @ 10:57 A.M. TUESDAY 6/9: U.S. Sentencing Commission spokesman Michael Courlander notes that although the commission has made known its position on the crack-powder cocaine disparity, it has taken no position on any specific legislation to address the disparity.