a bird and a bottle

More on Discriminatory Drug Sentencing
November 28, 2006, 10:39 am
Filed under: law, news

I feel like a bit of a broken record, but here we go…

The push to get rid of disparate drug sentencing that punishes crack cocaine 100 times as harshly as powder cocaine is picking up momentum.
At the recent Sentencing Commission hearing on the topic, even the man who proposed the sentencing scheme came out against it. While the Bush administration digs in its heels and refuses – once again – to acknowledge reality, Congress is engaging in a bipartisan effort to get rid of this racist and inhumane program.

Jackie Jones reports on BlackAmericaWeb (via AlterNet) that even conservative Republican Jeff Session (R-AL) is getting involved, proposing (with Democrats Ken Salazar and Mark Pryor, and Republican John Cornyn) a bill that would lower crack sentences and increase powder cocaine sentences, and shift the law enforcement focus from low-level peddlers and users to real drug kingpins. The bill would also implement stricter penalties for drug traffickers who use women or children as couriers.

While the bill, the Drug Sentencing Reform Act, is commendable and advocates should be excited at the prospect of bipartisan action on drug sentencing, we need to be sure to read the fine print. The bill does not equalize crack and cociane sentencing, but instead reduces the disparity from 100-to-1 to 20-to-1. Certainly this is a vast improvement, but it is not equality. The bill will also create problems of its own by instituting new harsh mandatory minimum sentences (10 years in some cases) for powder cocaine offenders, divertion attention from what would be a better and longer-term fix: drug treatment. Instead of accepting this part of the Sessions et al. bill, Congressional Democrats should push for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession.

Here’s what the ACLU had to say in its recent testimony to the Sentencing Commission about Sen. Sessions’ bill and other sentencing reform bills that were introduced in the Congressional session now ending:

Several members of 109th Congress introduced legislation addressing the 100 to 1 disparity between federal crack and powder cocaine sentences. Rep. Charles Rangel’s (D-NY) H.R. 2456, the Crack Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act of 2005, equalizes the drug quantity ratio at the current level of powder cocaine and eliminates the mandatory minimum for simple possession. S. 3725, the Drug Sentencing Reform Act of 2006, sponsored by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) would reduce the drug quantity ratio to a 20:1 disparity by increasing the trigger level for crack and decreasing the trigger quantity amount for powder cocaine as well as change the mandatory sentence for simple possession to one year. In addition, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) introduced legislation that would equalize trigger quantities of crack and powder cocaine at the current 5-gram level of crack.

The ACLU strongly opposes any measures that would lower the amount of powder cocaine required to trigger a mandatory minimum. Powder cocaine sentences are already severe and increasing the number of people incarcerated for possessing small amounts of cocaine is not the answer to the problem. Additionally, any measures that decrease the amount of powder cocaine would disproportionately impact minority communities because of the disparate prosecution of powder cocaine offenses. In 2000, 17.8% of all powder cocaine defendants were white, 30.5% were black and 50.8% were Hispanics. The mandatory sentences for crack cocaine and the disparity with powder cocaine sentences have created a legacy that must come to an end.

So what are we to make of all this? I think we should applaud the Sentencing Commissions’ decision to address disparate and discriminatory sentencing. But we can’t rest easy. Instead, we need to continue to put pressure on our elected representatives both through letters and with our votes to make sure that when the Sentencing Commission does take some positive action on drug sentencing, it goes all the way. The current policy is now almost universally admitted to be a failure. We shouldn’t take baby steps away from this bad law. That would only further institutionalize the problem. Instead, we’ve got to push for real, full reform that abandons the idea that it’s good to jail the little guy.

(photo source)


4 Comments so far
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The structural problem with sentencing laws is that they are one-way ratchets that are not subject to meaningful judicial review. There is no strong proportionality constraint in noncapital cases. As a result, something that should never be left to the political process (criminal sentencing) is placed exclusively in the hands of political branches.

Comment by Ian

Agreed – part of the problem of mandatory sentencing laws is that they tie the hands of the judges. They’re an infringement by the political branches into the judicial function. And the results have been disastrous.

Comment by bean

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