Reform Means Fairness; House Vote Would End Disparity in Crack Sentencing

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 23, 2010 | Go to article overview

Reform Means Fairness; House Vote Would End Disparity in Crack Sentencing


Byline: Pat Nolan, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The House of Representatives may have an opportunity to address the unfairness of the current 100-to-1 disparity between crack- and powder-cocaine sentencing. I hope the House joins the Senate in passing S. 1789, which would dramatically reduce the disparity in punishments between crack- and powder-cocaine offenses.

This is not a harebrained liberal scheme to set loose a horde of drug traffickers on the streets. Instead, it is a chance to correct an imbalance in our sentencing laws and is co-sponsored by some of the most conservative members of the Senate, including Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, a physician from Oklahoma, and Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions and John Cornyn, former attorneys general of Alabama and Texas, respectively.

They know that the current disparity in sentences for cocaine is horribly unjust, and they and their Democratic colleagues have acted to correct a mistake made by Congress in 1986. That mistaken policy mandates a 10-year minimum sentence for a drug dealer with only a candy-bar-size amount of crack. Yet if the dealer were selling powder cocaine, he would have to have a briefcase full of powder cocaine to receive that same 10-year sentence. The law clearly is un-just. A unanimous Senate voted to reform the disparity in March. The House should follow suit next week and send the bill to President Obama.

This disparity was passed in 1986 and based largely on the assertion that crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine, that it was instantly addictive and that it caused violent behavior. Since then, copious scientific evidence and U.S. Sentencing Commission analysis have shown that these assertions, which were not supported by sound data, were exaggerated or even false. The disparity has resulted in a hugely disproportionate number of black Americans being sentenced under this mandatory-minimum law. Although the intent was not to single out one racial demographic over another, the impact of these laws amounted to discrimination.

The harsh crack penalties have fallen mostly on low-level cocaine offenders, many with no previous criminal history. According to an analysis by the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, just 7 percent of federal cocaine cases are directed at high-level traffickers. Instead, federal authorities squander huge amounts of resources on small cogs in the cocaine distribution network: One-third of all federal cocaine cases involve an average of 52 grams - the weight of a candy bar. This is a terrible misuse of the time and talent of federal law enforcement and prosecutors. Plus, it has clogged the federal courts with cases that can be handled easily by the states. If we are to stop the flood of cocaine coming into the country, federal law enforcement should be focused on high-level traffickers. …

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