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Crack Cocaine Sentencing Guidelines Under Scrutiny

Crack Cocaine Sentencing Guidelines Under Scrutiny

In 1986 Congress adopted a federal sentencing policy mandating that those who commit crimes involving crack cocaine be sentenced at ratio of 100 to 1 compared to those whose crimes involve powder cocaine.  As an example, if an individual is caught dealing five grams of crack cocaine, they face the same sentence as someone caught dealing 500 grams of powder cocaine.  For years criminal justice advocates, law enforcement, and others involved in day-to-day policing of cocaine-related issues have lobbied Congress to narrow this disparity.  So far Congress has been silent on the issue, that is, until recently.

This week the House Judiciary Committee held hearings to address the federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.  Under the Bush Administration the Department of Justice opposed review of the sentencing disparity, but Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department has taken a clear step away from Bush Administration policy in this area.

As part of the hearings the Judiciary Committee heard from a number of law enforcement officials and district court judges, all of whom believe the current 100 to 1 policy is an utter failure.  Multiple pieces of legislation are under construction aimed at addressing these disparities.

The sea change could be attributed to a number of factors.  Drug offenders currently make up half of all prison inmates and reflect mostly low-level players in drug manufacturing, distribution, and trafficking organizations.  Most are first-time offenders.  States have witnessed their prison populations swell thirteen-fold simply to house drug offenders.  As states face bankruptcy any policy argument supporting simply locking up petty drug offenders evaporates.  

Additionally, the racial inequality between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses is well documented and no serious criminal justice advocate or scholar even argues with the basic premise that these guidelines have a discriminatory effect on the black community.  While no one would admit in public or on the record to a discriminatory intent in enacting the legislation, Attorney General Holder has come pretty close in his statements announcing the Obama Administration’s turn away from the drug policy of the Reagan-Bush Republicans.  Holder is on record as saying there is absolutely no evidence of the efficacy of the disparity, nor was there ever.  One has to wonder then if there was no evidence that crack was more dangerous than powder cocaine, why the need for the sentencing disparity to begin with?  Attorney General Holder has certainly asked that question.

That is not to say the reason Attorney General Holder and the Obama Administration support scrapping the sentencing policy is because they are black.  Rather, it appears that it has taken the election of seasoned Constitutional scholar and the appointment of a seasoned law enforcement attorney to finally get a common-sense approach to criminal justice matters.  Competency and experience.  What a refreshing change. 

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photo courtesy of Marco Gomes via Flickr

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13 comments

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9:13AM PDT on Jun 9, 2009

Shannon,
As contradictory as your statement is;
I AGREE!

4:27PM PDT on Jun 8, 2009

I belive the point that has been made in this blog is that sentance has more to do with race then the drug itself. I hate to seem rude, but perhaps more energy should be spent on the rights of the VICTEMS insted of the people who are committing the crime, seems to me that these are the people that need a voice.

12:05PM PDT on Jun 8, 2009

Shannon,
I think you miss the point. If there was no place to purchase powder, there would be no source for making crack. Why I ask, should the sentence be lighter for powder? Aren't the people who sell powder to those who use it to make crack just as guilty? And how do we know what the long term effects of powder use are? Can any of us look at a powder user and know they're a user? With crack, yes! So, how do we know that people are not robbing and stealing to get powder? All drugs have a psychological "cost". So one should not say any drug is cheaper than any other. People have killed for prescription drugs.

12:04PM PDT on Jun 8, 2009

Jeffrey,
This is what I said:
Jeffrey, please take a look at this site and then tell me if you feel the same
http://www.leap.cc/cms/index.php
For some reason I fail to see a "dishonest argument". I presented no argument at all.
I asked a question. A simple "YES" or "NO" would have sufficed. Is anyone or anything that disagrees with you, by your standards,"DISHONEST"?

7:41PM PDT on Jun 1, 2009

By the way, I think the war on drugs is one of the worst mistakes ever made, and favor the decriminalization of all drugs. But I really hate dishonest arguments.

7:39PM PDT on Jun 1, 2009

A stronger sentance for crack makes perfect sense to me. The effects of the sale, distribution, and use are felt more by the community then powder. Coke in this rock form is more addicting and cheaper. Since rock is more affordable then powder form then naturally it was sold in areas in which people were apt to buy...because it was cheaper!!!! These laws were passed when crack was ravaging our country. Rocking coke was not a master plan of the goverment to put certian groups of people in jail or keep them in jail, it was the plan of dealers to make more money. I am sorry your loss, that is terrible beyond words. I am not sure about the person that committed this crime, but if they were sent to jail-do they desearve a lighter sentance because the coke was in rock form and not powder? I think not, you take a life you pay the price. You sell to kids, you belong in jail, I dont care how long or if you think it's unfair, a drug dealer has not rights,I dont care if they are addicted or not. EVERYONE HAS A CHOICE-EVERYONE CAN GET HELP. Again....not buying the argument. Sorry.

7:30PM PDT on Jun 1, 2009

I called your tactic dishonest, which is was. You attempted to give the impression that there was a general agreement among law enforcement personnel in support of your position, but you pointed to a site presenting only one side. This is the same dishonest tactic the lady who wrote the original commentary here sunk to in her reference to all the witnesses supporting her position.

Further, the idea that law enforcement personnel would lose their jobs if that law were changed is to ridiculous to bother with a serious reply.

2:15PM PDT on Jun 1, 2009

Shannon S.
You asked have if I have been robbed by a crack addict. It actually goes beyond robbery: My mother was killed by a crack addict. My point is , however, crack is produced from powder cocaine. So, why is one sentence "lighter". Makes no sense to me. If you stop the powder, you stop the crack.

1:55PM PDT on Jun 1, 2009

Jeffrey,

First you accuse me of being dishonest. That in and of itself shows me how you think. I merely sent you a site, asked you to look at it and then tell me if you had the same opinion. What's dishonest about that?
Did you even bother to read any of it?

Of course not all LEOs are going to feel that way. Some want to protect their jobs. If we ended the "Drug War", how many LEOs would get laid off? So, of course not all are going to agree. Do you blame them?

8:15AM PDT on May 27, 2009

Nate C:

Why would that site make me think any differently? Again, it is a one sided collection of law enforcement professionals. You dishonestly attempt to portray that as the norm among law enforcement professionals without giving any due to the other side.

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