It is never too late to correct some mistakes. That’s doubly true when it comes to unreasonably long and racially discriminatory sentences for crack cocaine offenses versus those for powder cocaine, and the high cost to society and government of incarcerating crack offenders for many years. The inordinately long sentences should be rolled back.
Current federal law imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for possession of 50 grams (about the size of an average chocolate bar) of crack cocaine. For powder cocaine, it takes 100 times that amount — or 5,000 grams — to earn the same sentence.
The inequitable sentence was instituted in 1986 amid a seeming epidemic of crack cocaine use and related violence. Then it was believed that crack cocaine was more addictive than the powder variety, and that it was at the roots of a crime wave.
Subsequent study has revealed otherwise. Lanny Breuer, chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said in testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee last week that there’s little scientific basis for the sentencing disparity. But there is a particularly onerous discriminatory effect.
As of 2006, he said, 82 percent of crack defendants in federal prisons were African-American. Just 9 percent were white. In the same period, 14 percent of powder cocaine defendants were white, 27 percent were black, and 58 percent were Hispanic, he said.
Advocates for more equitable sentencing have long complained about the racially discriminatory effect. And now, the Justice Department, the Obama administration and a number of lawmakers have voiced support for their cause. Indeed, Mr. Breuer on Wednesday became the first senior Justice Department official to endorse a revision of federal law to eliminate the sentencing disparity.
“We cannot ignore the mounting evidence that the current cocaine sentencing disparity is difficult to justify based on the facts and science, including evidence that crack is not an inherently more addictive substance than powder cocaine,” he said. “We know of no other controlled substance where the penalty structure differs so dramatically because of the drug’s form.”
The Justice official said data also showed that most crack prosecutions involve low-level distributors. He said 55 percent of federal crack offenders were small-time street dealers, compared to seven percent of those sentenced for selling powder cocaine.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., an original proponent of the two-tiered sentencing formula, said he now supports ending the sentencing disparity. He pointed particularly to recent studies which show that 94 percent of crack cocaine offenses today do not involve violence.
Mr. Breuer finished his testimony by saying that the administration “believes Congress’ goal should be to completely eliminate the sentencing disparity” between crack and power cocaine. Unless Congress can find a legitimate reason to the contrary, the disparate sentences should be leveled, and defendants serving longer time should have their unjustified time commuted.