ACLU Urges End to Discriminatory Crack vs. Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity, Restore Rationality to Sentencing Policy

May 22, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today urged a Senate subcommittee to support the repeal of dramatic disparities in sentencing policy between crack and powder cocaine, saying that sentences for crack offenses are extraordinarily and unnecessarily harsh and must be lessened.

“The sentences for crack offenses need to fall to a level in line with the punishments for powder,” said Rachel King, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “There is no rational medical or policy reason to punish crack more severely than powder. Cocaine is cocaine.”

The sentencing disparity was the topic of a hearing this morning in the Crime and Drugs Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE).

The ACLU’s King said that because of several factors, such as racially uneven enforcement patterns, reducing the sentencing disparity by increasing penalties for powder offenses – as some have supported – would only have the effect of putting more people of color behind bars. The only solution, King said, is to decrease sentences for crack offenses to a level in line with those for equivalent powder offenses.

The sentencing disparity between the two forms of cocaine dates back to 1988 when Congress established a special sentencing exception for cocaine base or “crack.” That year, Congress increased the penalties for the sale of crack cocaine so that a dealer with five grams of crack received the same punishment as a dealer who had 500 grams of powder cocaine, a disparity of 100-to-1. Congress also increased the penalty for simple possession of crack to five years. Before that time, the law did not distinguish between the punishment for powder and crack cocaine.

According to past reports by the Sentencing Commission, the majority of people prosecuted for both crack and powder cocaine offenses have been people of color. Of the total of powder cocaine cases in 2000, 57 percent were brought against Latinos and 30 percent against African-Americans, even though the vast majority of powder cocaine users were white. Crack prosecutions are skewed even further toward racial and ethnic minorities.

“Based on ignorance and media fueled hysteria,” King said, “Congress has, for the last 14 years, tied the hands of federal judges by forcing them to impose unfair and extraordinarily harsh mandatory minimum sentences on crack users and dealers.

“The effect of these draconian punishments has fallen primarily on people of color and ruined thousands of lives,” King concluded. “Legislative action should not be determined by media hype.”

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