ACLU Releases Crack Cocaine Report, Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 Deepened Racial Inequity in Sentencing

October 26, 2006 12:00 am

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Cracks in the System

WASHINGTON – To mark the 20th anniversary of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the American Civil Liberties Union today issued the report, “Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law.” The report details discriminatory effects of the drug law that devastated African American and low-income communities.

“This anniversary marks two decades of a tragic mistake, when lawmakers allowed emotion to overtake reason.” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The result is a drug policy that makes a false distinction between powdered and crack cocaine and perpetuates a racial caste system when it comes to our criminal justice system.”

One of the report’s key findings indicates that sentencing policies, particularly the mandatory minimum for low-level crack offenses, subject people who are low-level participants to the same or harsher sentences as major dealers. As law enforcement focused its efforts on crack offenses, a dramatic shift occurred in the incarceration trends for African Americans, relative to the rest of the nation. This trend effectively transformed federal prisons into institutions increasingly dedicated to incarcerating African Americans.

The report also explains that there is no rational medical reason for the 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and instead causes an unjustified racial disparity in our penal system.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, passed during the media frenzy following the death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, established mandatory minimum sentences for possession of specific amounts of cocaine. However, it also established a 100-to-1 disparity between distribution of powder and crack cocaine. For example, distributing just five grams of crack carries a minimum five-year federal prison sentence, while distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine carries the same sentence. The discrepancy remains despite repeated recommendations by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to Congress to reconsider the penalties.

Because of its relative low cost, crack cocaine is more accessible to poor people, many of whom are African Americans. Conversely, powder cocaine is much more expensive and tends to be used by more affluent white Americans.

The report includes recent data that indicates that African Americans make up 15 percent of the country’s drug users, yet they make up 37 percent of those arrested for drug violations, 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense. More than 80 percent of the defendants sentenced for crack offenses are African American, despite the fact that more than 66 percent of crack users are white or Hispanic.

Prior to the enactment of federal mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine offenses in 1986, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49 percent higher.

“The law’s goal of targeting high-level drug traffickers failed,” Fredrickson added. “Congress made it clear that by passing the current mandatory minimum penalties for crack cocaine, it intended to target major drug traffickers. The opposite is true: mandatory penalties for crack cocaine offenses apply most often to offenders who are low-level participants in the drug trade. For example, data from the Sentencing Commission shows that 73 percent of crack defendants have only low-level involvement in drug activity, such as street-level dealers, couriers or lookouts.”

The report, authored by Deborah J. Vagins, Policy Counsel for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Jesselyn McCurdy, Legislative Counsel, makes the following policy recommendations. The quantities of crack cocaine that trigger federal prosecution and sentencing must be equalized with, and increased to, the current levels of powder cocaine. Federal prosecutions should focus on high-level traffickers of both crack and powder cocaine. And mandatory minimums for crack and powder offenses, especially the mandatory minimum for simple possession, should be eliminated.

The ACLU’s report, “Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law,” is available at: /drugpolicy/sentencing/27181pub20061026.html

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