gua: Crack sentencing

Published: Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 3:28 p.m.

There was never any scientific basis for the disparity in sentencing for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses. Yet for decades, those convicted of possessing crack have received the same mandatory prison time as offenders possessing 100 times the amount of powder cocaine. Today we know that crack is not 100 times more powerful, addictive or deadly than powder cocaine.

They have identical effects on the brain, although crack delivers a high more rapidly because it is smoked rather than snorted. The main difference between the two is that powder cocaine is used primarily by young whites, and crack, which is less expensive, is used primarily by impoverished blacks.

Panic over a crack epidemic in the nation's cities in the 1980s led to draconian laws that ultimately would be as devastating to entire communities as the drug itself. According to a 2006 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, one in 14 black children has a parent in prison because of felony drug convictions. That's why a bipartisan bill to reduce the 100-1 sentencing disparity, approved unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee, is at once welcome and disheartening. The committee voted to reduce the disparity to 18 to 1, but the ratio should be 1 to 1, as proposed by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. Under the bill, possession of 28 grams of crack, instead of 5 grams, would trigger the five-year mandatory minimum sentence. The bill also would stiffen penalties for bribing a peace officer and violence attendant to a crack-related offense.

It has taken more than a decade of determined advocacy to reach this point, and although it's not perfect, the Senate's reform measure, which is not retroactive, would mitigate the sentences of an estimated 3,000 people a year.

But this agreement has already been struck. Before year's end, we hope to see the biased sentencing disparity on its way out.

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