“Doing that Crack Cocaine Thing”

18 07 2009

In a moment of unexpected yet welcome levity during the Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings for to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Senator Jeff Sessions made an unprompted comment about correcting one of Congress biggest blunders: enacting a law creating a 100 to 1 disparity in cocaine and crack sentencing.

In an exchange with a noted civil rights advocate he said, ” Senator Leahy and I are talking during these hearings. We’re going to do that crack cocaine thing that you and I have talked about before.” The comment immediately drew laughs and prompted Sessions to explain, “We’re going to reduce the burden of penalties in some of the crack cocaine cases and make them fair.”

All jokes aside this is undoubtedly a good sign. Sen. Sessions was addressing Wade Henderson a noted civil rights advocate, who has been urging Congress to reform the crack cocaine sentencing including mandatory minimums for years. Under federal law, a dealer with 5 grams of crack cocaine on him, which is the size of two sugar packets can get a five year mandatory minimum sentence. By contrast, a cocaine dealer would have to have 500 grams of cocaine, which is more a little more than a pound, to trigger a five year mandatory minimum.  That creates a 100 to 1 disparity in the sentencing for crack and cocaine.

“Equalization of the sentencing ratio for crack and powder cocaine offenses from 100 to 1 to a ratio of 1 to 1 at the current powder cocaine level is the only fair solution,” Henderson told the Senate subcommittee on Crime and Drugs in April of this year. “The time has come to rationalize drug sentencing laws and practices.  The civil rights impact of these criminal justice reforms can no longer be ignored.”

Those sentiments were later echoed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last month. “ This Administration firmly believes that the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences is unwarranted, creates a perception of unfairness, and must be eliminated. This change should be addressed in Congress,” Holder said.

According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group, the median drug quantity for a crack cocaine street level seller charged in federal court (comprising two-thirds of federal crack defendants) in 2000 was 52 grams, enough to trigger a 10-year mandatory sentence. For powder cocaine, the median quantity for a street level dealer was 340 grams, not enough even to trigger the 5-year sentence, and often a mere slap on the wrist for first time offenders.

But crack and powder cocaine are pharmacological identical substances. In fact, crack is just a hardened form of  powder cocaine often mixed with baking power. But with cocaine users being disproportionately white compared to crack users who are disproportionately black the law with its penalty structures has a huge unfair impact on who goes to prison and who doesn’t and for how long.

Why did Congress do this? And continue to tolerate it? Interestingly enough, it was the reaction to the story of Len Bias‘ death that led to the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which is the law that contains all the stiff penalties. Bias’ death from a cocaine overdose after experimenting it for the first time the night he was drafted by the Boston Celtics shocked Congress into action and really prompted the war on drugs as we know it.

In fact, the law’s mandatory penalties for crack cocaine offenses were the harshest ever adopted for low level drug offenses and established the drastically different penalty structures for crack and powder cocaine. Lawmakers, however, had a poor understanding of the differences between the drug substances and figured that the disparity would lead to jailing actual drug king pins.

Of course, thanks to the Wire and countless other studies, we now know that it the law affects more low level drug dealers, who are easily replaceable as they come in and out of jail, than it does so called king pins, who often rarely see extensive jail time. This has led to an explosion of incarceration rates with notable racial disparities. Between 1994 and 2003, the average time served by African Americans for drug offenses increased by 62 percent, compared to an increase of 17 percent for white drug offenders, says the Sentencing Project.

An independent federal body called the Sentencing Commission, has called for reforming the sentencing structure for more than a decade now, and the Obama administration supports doing so, but its hard to underestimate the fear of being branded as soft on crime for Republican and Democratic elected officials alike, especially for redstate Dems.

That said, the tide does seem to be turning because with increasing support for a 1 to 1 bill in both the House and Senate. And even Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former federal prosecutor in Alabama with less than enlightened views on racial equality, supported a 20 to 1 bill back in 2007.

To be sure, that’s not exactly where the ratio should be, but its certainly an improvement. This is significant because whatever reform bill comes out the Senate will have to go through the Senate committee where Sessions is currently the top Republican. So, when the Alabama Senator said he wants to work with Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen Patrick Leahy about a “doing that crack cocaine thing” its definitely a good sign.




One response

19 07 2009
Reggie Greene / The Logistician

An excerpt from our recent article on Michael Jackson:

“Lest you be confused about this drug thing, there is little difference between illegal/recreational drugs, and prescription drugs, with the exceptions being the legitimacy of the “entity” which produces them, who gets to prescribe them, and whether politicians benefit. Drugs be drugs.

“Take it from some guys who matured (arguably) during the drugs, sex, and rock and roll years. We know lots of successful doctors, business people, family people, accountants, judges, and pillars of society who once used drugs in many a form and fashion. Fortunately for most of them and for society, they appreciated that drugs might be an interesting pastime, but not a life long journey.”

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