Under federal law in effect since 1987, someone charged with possessing five grams of crack faces a mandatory minimum five-year sentence. By contrast, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine -- one hundred times as much -- to trigger the same sentence.
While the Sentencing Commission cannot itself enact changes in the crack cocaine law -- that's up to Congress -- it has already signaled its impatience with congressional inaction. A little more than two weeks ago, the commission adjusted federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses so that crack offenders will serve on average about a year less than under the old guidelines. That move alone will provide small relief to thousands of federal crack prisoners.
But the real problem is the harsh mandatory minimums for federal crack offenses. The Sentencing Commission found that:
- The current quantity-based penalties overstate the relative harmfulness of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine.
- The current quantity-based penalties sweep too broadly and apply most often to lower level offenders.
- The current quantity-based penalties overstate the seriousness of most crack cocaine offenses and fail to provide adequate proportionality.
- The current severity of crack cocaine penalties mostly impacts minorities.
"Based on these findings," the report read, "the Commission maintains its consistently held position that the 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio significantly undermines the various congressional objectives set forth in the Sentencing Reform Act." While noting that setting appropriate thresholds is "a difficult and imprecise undertaking that ultimately is a policy decision," the Commission nevertheless "strongly and unanimously" urged Congress to adopt the following recommendations:
- Increase the five-year and ten-year statutory mandatory minimum threshold quantities for crack cocaine offenses to focus the penalties more closely on serious and major traffickers as described generally in the legislative history of the 1986 Act.
- Repeal the mandatory minimum penalty provision for simple possession of crack cocaine under 21 U.S.C. § 844.
- Reject addressing the 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio by decreasing the five-year and ten-year statutory mandatory minimum threshold quantities for powder cocaine offenses, as there is no evidence to justify such an increase in quantity-based penalties for powder cocaine offenses (e.g., don't increase powder cocaine sentences).
"The prisoners, children and families torn apart by these unjustifiably harsh penalties are watching closely and will welcome crack sentencing reforms that restore some justice to crack penalties," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "Only Congress can change our harsh mandatory minimum crack laws. Lawmakers should not squander the important opportunity presented by the most recent set of findings and recommendations by the Sentencing Commission. The time is ripe for reform, especially given the bipartisan support for crack sentencing reform that has emerged in recent years."
"The current sentencing structure has had a disproportionate and unfair impact on African-American and low income communities," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, "and we're encouraged that the US Sentencing Commission has once again acknowledged this fact. But 2007 marks the fourth time in 20 years that the commission has issued such a report, and Congress has yet to address the problem. Years of medical and legal research have shown no appreciable difference between crack and powder cocaine, and no justification for allowing the vast sentencing gap between them to stand. We urge Congress to put aside politics and act now to fix this discriminatory federal drug sentencing policy."
But it is not reform advocates but members of Congress who will or will not enact most reforms. While in the past, Congress has rejected such recommendations from the Commission, there are some indications support for reforms is growing.
"It's past time to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences actually," Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions told National Public Radio, "because the penalties on crack cocaine are extraordinarily heavy -- too heavy to be justified as public policy." His colleagues should listen to the Commission, Sessions added. Sessions has already introduced a bill that would reduce the disparity to 20:1.
Another key player, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the legal publication the Daily Journal the report's findings were "an important first step" in correcting the sentencing disparity. "For far too long, the federal crack/powder sentencing laws have created an injustice in our nation," he said. Leahy said he hopes that federal prosecutors will focus more on drug kingpins.
Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware), who has announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, has also weighed in. "This 100:1 disparity is unjust, unfair, and the time has long past for it to be undone," Biden said in a Tuesday press release. "The current sentencing disparity between the two forms of cocaine is based on false notions and old logic," said Sen. Biden. "Congress has ignored this issue for too long. I intend to introduce legislation to remedy the disparity and refocus the federal cocaine sentencing laws and federal resources on major drug kingpins, as was the intent of the 1986 law. I look forward to working with my colleagues -- Republicans and Democrats -- and urge them to support righting this wrong."
But, Piper warned, the devil is in the details. "They agree that something needs to be done, but I'm not sure they will reach agreement on what needs to be done. Then it would have to pass floor votes, and then we have to wonder if Bush would veto it," he said. "But when you have the Sentencing Commission and leading Republicans signing off on something, the Democrats should be emboldened. That shows this is a bipartisan effort."
Even the Justice Department is wavering. While Piper noted that the department has long taken the position that there was no problem, department spokesman Bryan Sierra told the Daily Journal this week that the agency is "willing to discuss the disparity in the ratio for sentencing between crack and powder cocaine," but he added that the department believes that "it should be done in the broader context of sentencing reform."
For the fourth time since 1995, the Sentencing Commission has urged Congress to act to reduce the disparity and bring greater fairness to sentencing. Now it is in Congress' hands.