Crack/powder disparity must end, panel hears

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.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • JK

    Who could care less about these crackheads?

    Meanwhile, real news continues on in the rest of California such as:

    “SAN DIEGO — A local pastor and his wife claim they were interrogated by a San Diego County official, who then threatened them with escalating fines if they continued to hold Bible studies in their home, 10News reported.

    Attorney Dean Broyles of The Western Center For Law & Policy was shocked with what happened to the pastor and his wife.

    Broyles said, “The county asked, ‘Do you have a regular meeting in your home?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you say amen?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you pray?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you say praise the Lord?’ ‘Yes.'”

    The county employee notified the couple that the small Bible study, with an average of 10-15 people attending, was in violation of County regulations, according to Broyles.

    Broyles said a few days later the couple received a written warning that listed “unlawful use of land” and told them to “stop religious assembly or apply for a major use permit” — a process that could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

  • JT

    As a police officer in Oakland several things come to mind when I read this article.

    1. Ive never heard of a first time crack user doing 5 years and as I sit here i cant think of any crack users doing any time for a first bust. Probation likely the only repercussion.

    2. Crack devastates neighborhoods; I cant think of one neighborhood devastated by cocaine.

    3. Federal charges for crack and meth are the same, because they are equally devastating. In short there is no real cocaine user problem.

    4. When cocaine is trafficked the sentences are equivalent to crack and meth as they should be.

    5. The argument is over federal mandates which are almost never used in simple possession cases. Also many sales cases are reduced to possession cases. I doubt this is accounted for by the politicians analysis.

    6. More blacks are imprisoned for crack because they are the primary retail face for crack on the street. In short easier to catch because they literally conduct business on the street.. Latinos are the primary mover of large quantities of cocaine. Not so easy to catch, because you must have a reason for the car stop and then a reason to search the car.

    7. The article sites a study which says whites and latinos use two thirds of the crack. In my experience simple user do very little time, sellers however are a different story, so the user analysis is not that relevant in this argument.

    Even if you change the law the proportions will be exactly the same because the demographic will be exactly the same. T o equalize it you have to either lower crack sentence lengths or lengthen cocaine sentence lengths. Obviously theses particular politicians want to lower the lengths. Net result more drug dealers on the street. More dealers. more murder.

  • RR

    So the ACLU (anti-Christian Lawyers Union) wants fairness for dope addicts and drug pushers. That’s consistent with their other loony stances. But Lee and co.? Is Stark worried about jail-time for his loyal constituents who sell or use dope?

  • Stacia

    Actually, the whole crack disparity has nothing to do with DRUG-USERS or so called “crack-heads”…It’s about people who sell drugs if yall must know! & While yall so worried about what the disparity is about, you should be focusing on while drug-dealers get more time than murders! Where’s the justice in that? It shouldn’t matter who this disparity focuses on! What’s right is right, no matter who it may be helping out. Even if it was for crack heads, it’s still not fair. It’s completely RACIST. The majority of powder cocaine distributers are white while crack-cocaine distributers are black…THAT’S WHY THAT LAW IS SO HARSH NOW…Or is it because the majority of crack-abusers are WHITE??? Hhmmm…YOU ANSWER THAT

  • Elwood

    Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex is as nutty as a pecan orchard. Her list of local co-sponsors contains no surprises.

    Pay no attention to JT’s post. What the hell does an Oakland police officer know about crack?

    Stacia you should read JT’s post thoroughly and carefully.

  • RR

    Cocaine illustrates brotherhood of man–A brown guy grows it, a black guy sells it and a white guy snorts it.

  • KD

    When did the world come to such a place where a drug dealer serves more time than molesters,rapist and murderers?…

    When prisons,politicians, and police officers started making money!
    How much does it cost to house an inmate a year? We would spend less reforming these individuals by keeping them in school, providing after school programs and mentoring programs. By doing so they would never turn to the street to make money to .. feed their families, pay a light bill for mom etc. I’m from the neighborhood and this is why most low level street-dealers are turning to their neighborhood dealer to make a dollar. These young men and women barely have a high school diploma and lack the finances or mental capability to orchestrate the “bigger picture”. How have they been targeted? I don’t know maybe because the people targeting them don’t have the intelligence or capability to go after the real source? I mean the people bringing the drugs, financing such a deal must have real connections, must be educated, and does not live in the neighborhood affected?

    Why isnt the focus on how the drugs get here? The people making the real money? … The DEA should use their “so-called special training” to investigate them.. I guess it isn’t hard to “bust” ignorant-uneducated street dealers.. Question ?? How do you train for these undercover operations??? What formal education does the officers thatconduct these investigations and make these arrests have? I really would like to know?

    It is obvious that making these arrest and conducting these investigations on street dealers keeps them employed, our prisons and county jails full, our takes increasing ….and the cycle continues…

    Lets get to the real problem here it doesn’t take 10 years to life to learn a lesson. lets punish the real people here and get rid of these harsh mandatory minimums that have done nothing for our community or for the “crack epidemic”!There cant be crack without cocaine and there wont be cocaine on the streets if it cant get here! WHO’S THE KINGPIN??

  • martha

    This bill needs to be passed!!
    “Drug Dealer” should not serve a life sentence vs. a rapist, murder,etc!!!
    I pray to God that this bill gets passed.

  • Metalfreiza

    This argument to equalize the punishment is totally ridiculous, and I’m already tired of reading about it-that law need not be changed! The fact that crack is cheap and therefore more available to the poor has nothing to do with it because crack is highly addictive to the rich and the poor alike, so poor people just need to find a new way to make $ without getting everyone hooked on super-addictive drugs for god’s sake! I know which one is more addictive because I’ve tried them, and I hate coke! When you hit crack you go str8 to that heavenly whole body orgasm in like ten seconds and IMMEDIATELY want more and badly as it takes you to the same place a lot faster than coke, so of course it is more addictive! I’m enraged by people who argue that just because black people aren’t as likely to actually use crack and are more likely to get busted selling it (or having it for an unknown reason-their case somehow merely “involves” crack-stupid defense), they don’t deserve any harsh punishments. They won’t taste their own medicine because they’d rather use addicts, who are willing to pay their outrageous prices, for $ and power! Why not contrast this idea with the one that Mexico had about why they should legalize small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, and heroine for personal use. They did that because they didn’t want to continue to fill their jails with “people who have these addictions”. In the same way, people who are busted with possessing coke or small amounts of crack for personal use in the USA may be offered rehab as part of a deferral program to help with their addiction because they are prone to use (5 grams is NOT a small amount of crack for personal use). But then we have these non-using, black, crack dealers! They don’t get involved with crack because they have a substance abuse problem at all as half of them have never used it in their whole life; they only get involved with crack because they don’t wanna work, and they wanna make free $ on the black market even though they know that it could be at the expense of their own freedom! They actually DECIDE to do that in spite of the well-known consequences. They’re too smart to be foolish enough to use the addictive substance, but the truth is they’re not smart enough to keep from getting set up and sent to prison for life for selling it to criminal informants like myself. They just need to go to jail for trying to mess everyone up for free $! And I think that the fact that they don’t use makes their involvement with the substance less understandable and not more so! If the punishment for crack is so bad, why don’t they just stop selling crack? Most white people find other, more productive, ways to make a living as they are less likely get caught in that net of justice because crack is an extremely addictive drug that is dangerous to get busted screwing around with and for good reason! They’re always getting busted with it, yet statistics show they don’t use it as much. So it’s laughable to suggest that they should be offered any chance of drug treatment instead of prison. That will not fix them-they are sick, lazy people looking for any easy way OUT and using a hard substance that often ends up being an easy way IN to some hard time! It’s not racial disparity; it’s a disparity for fools!