Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

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Drug War Prisoners: 86-Year-Old Alva Mae Groves Dies Behind Bars

Alva Mae "Granny" Groves, the 86-year-old North Carolina grandmother sentenced to 24 years behind bars after refusing to testify against her children, died last week at a federal prison hospital in Texas. Federal prison officials denied her request to die at home, saying her charges were too serious to allow compassionate release.

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Alva Mae Groves (courtesy november.org)
Groves had already served 13 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to sell cocaine and aiding and abetting the trading of crack cocaine for food stamps. She was 74 when she went to prison. She always maintained that she had been punished for failing to cooperate with federal prosecutors to lock up her children for life.

"My real crime... was refusing to testify against my sons, children of my womb, that were conceived, birthed and raised with love," Groves wrote in a 2001 letter to November Coalition, an anti-prohibitionist group that concentrates on freeing federal drug war prisoners.

Law enforcement officials continue to maintain that Groves played a key role in a cocaine conspiracy conducted by family members, but family members have always said she did nothing more than look the other way. Five members of her family were imprisoned in the investigation. Her son, Ricky Groves, is doing a life sentence, while Groves, her older daughter, and her granddaughter were all sent to federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida.

Groves became one of the poster children for sentencing reform as reaction grew to the drug war excesses of the 1980s and 1990s. But any reforms will come too late for the grandmother who loved tending her garden.

"It's a relief she's dead, but it's a hurt, a real hurt we weren't with her," daughter Everline told the Charlotte Observer. "What could she have hurt?"

Groves dreamed of getting out of prison, planting new gardens, and seeing grandchildren born while she was behind bars, but never had the chance. Her kidneys began failing early this year, and she was transferred to a federal prison hospital in Fort Worth.

Groves did not want to die in prison, she told the November Coalition in a recent letter. "I realize everyone has a day to die; death is a fate that will not be cheated. But I don't want to die in prison. I want to die at home surrounded by the love of what's left of my family."

Last winter, the Groves family asked for compassionate release so she could die at home. The family wrote to every official they could think of and enlisted the help of groups like the November Coalition, to no avail. As Groves' daughters leaned over her bed on July 19, prison officials handed them a letter denying the request.

Coalition Launches Public Education Crack Cocaine Sentencing Initiative

The Sentencing Project and coalition partners, the American Civil Liberties Union, Open Society Institute and Drug Policy Alliance, have launched It's Not Fair. It's Not Working, a national campaign to educate the public about the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity. The goal is to encourage the American public to make their voices heard in order to reform the mandatory penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses to make them more equitable and fair. An important element of the initiative will be to engage the public through events such as town hall meetings, national conferences, hearings and other opportunities. All activities will be designed to educate and raise awareness. The It's Not Fair. It's Not Working campaign will also feature three advertisements: It's Not Fair (http://sentencingproject.org/tmp/File/Crack/Garrison_Ad%20(2c).pdf) features Karen Garrison, mother of twin sons who received long sentences for non-violent crack cocaine offenses just months after they graduated from college. Something's Wrong with the Math (http://sentencingproject.org/tmp/File/Crack/c_Chalkboard_Ad.pdf) points out that an individual only needs to possess 5 grams of crack cocaine to receive the same 5 year mandatory sentence as someone who sells 500 grams of powder cocaine. There's a Crack in the System (http://sentencingproject.org/tmp/File/Crack/c_SystemAd.pdf) supports the American ideal of a fair and appropriate sentencing system while at the same time informing the public that possessing a small amount of crack cocaine can carry an excessive penalty. Today a new consciousness about the unfairness and ineffectiveness of harsh crack cocaine mandatory sentences has emerged among advocates, policymakers, judges and the United States Sentencing Commission. At a time of bipartisan interest in this issue, Congress may be on the verge of mending the crack injustice. Since May, three bills have been introduced in the Senate that would reduce sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses: · Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) for the first time introduced a bill to equalize penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. · Senator Orrin Hatch's (R-UT) new proposal would reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder by raising the trigger weight for a five-year mandatory crack sentence from five grams to 25 grams. · Senator Jeff Sessions' (R-AL) bill would reduce the sentencing disparity also but expand mandatory sentencing for powder cocaine offenses. The Sentencing Project is actively working to advance crack cocaine sentencing reform in Congress this year. The support of national, state and local organizations is critical to our efforts. We urge organizations to endorse a sign-on letter to U.S. House and Senate Judiciary members calling for legislation eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses. You can submit your organization's endorsement of the crack cocaine sentencing reform letter at: http://www.sentencingproject.org/Contact.aspx. Please include your organization's name, the name and title of signer, and the signer's e-mail address and phone number. For more information about It's Not Fair. It's Not Working, and The Sentencing Project's work to end the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, go to www.sentencingproject.org/crackreform.
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United States

Republican and Democratic Senators Query Gonzales on Crack Sentencing Views

User "puregenius" reports over in the Reader Blogs that Republican and Democratic senators -- Jeff Sessions and Pat Leahy -- queried Alberto Gonzales about his views on the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, in last Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Dept. of Justice oversight. Short answer -- he likes it, they don't. Update: Just saw this link on TalkLeft to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the case of Derrick Kimbrough, a federal prisoner serving time on a crack cocaine offense. LDF contends that "The Crack Cocaine Sentencing Guidelines Have Resulted in Vast Racial Disparities" and "The Racial Disparities Associated with the Crack Cocaine Sentencing Guidelines Have Caused Widespread Distrust of the Law.
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Heavy time for drug lightweights

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
San Francisco Chronicle
URL: 
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2007/07/10/EDG6QQ4VGJ1.DTL

Joe Biden Does Something Good On Drug Policy

I've taken swings at Joe Biden a couple times in The Speakeasy, so I'm very pleased to see this:
In a press release that does not seem to be available online, the American Civil Liberties Union praises Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), historically one of the most gung-ho drug warriors in the Democratic Party, for introducing a bill that would eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine powder. Previous proposals would have merely reduced the disparity, in some cases by making cocaine powder sentences more severe. By contrast, Biden's bill would raises the amount of crack that triggers a five-year mandatory minimum sentence to 500 grams, the same as the amount for cocaine powder. [reason]
Here's Biden's statement:
The current sentencing disparity between the two forms of cocaine is based on false notions and old logic. The bottom line is that there is no scientific justification for any disparity. Crack and powder are simply two forms of the same drug, and each form produces identical effects. I will soon be introducing legislation that eliminates the sentencing disparity completely, fixing this injustice once and for all.
Coming from a man whose drug war credentials include authoring the RAVE Act and creating ONDCP, this is an exciting surprise. While many consider fixing the crack/powder sentencing disparity a no-brainer, reducing federal drug sentences is certainly a bold move for Biden.

He's running for president right now, so Biden's willingness to challenge a drug war injustice suggests a shifting perception of the political implications of U.S. drug policy. As obviously flawed as the sentencing disparity is, it's not really that much more palatable than any number of other issues we're working on. If Biden can recognize this problem, there's much more he could potentially come to understand.

(This blog post was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

 

Location: 
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Sentencing: Supreme Court to Decide Crack Sentencing Case

The US Supreme Court Monday agreed to hear the case of a Virginia man sentenced under the harsh federal crack cocaine laws. Coming after the high court has already agreed to hear two other cases related to federal sentencing, the decision will broaden its review of federal sentencing law by adding the notorious crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity to it.

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US Supreme Court
Under federal law, it takes five grams of crack or 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence. Similarly, 10 grams of crack or 1,000 grams of powder cocaine merit a 10-year mandatory minimum. The 100:1 disparity in the amounts of the drug needed to trigger the mandatory minimum sentences has been the subject of numerous critics, including federal judges.

The case selected Monday was that of a Virginia man, Derrick Kimbrough, who pleaded guilty to two counts of possessing and distributing more than 50 grams of crack. Federal sentencing guidelines called for a sentencing range of 19 to 22 years, but Federal District Court Judge Raymond Jackson in Richmond pronounced such a sentence "ridiculous" and "clearly inappropriate," and sentenced Kimbrough to the lowest sentence he could, the mandatory minimum of 15 years.

But the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Jackson's reasoning and ordered resentencing. "A sentence that is outside the guidelines range is per se unreasonable when it is based on a disagreement with the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses," the three-judge appeals court panel said.

Other federal appeals courts disagree. Both the Third Circuit in Philadelphia and the District Colombia Circuit Court of Appeals have held that, as the Philadelphia appeals court put it, "a sentencing court errs when it believes that it has no discretion to consider the crack/powder cocaine differential incorporated in the guidelines." Both courts noted that the Supreme Court itself had made the federal sentencing guidelines advisory rather than mandatory in its 2005 ruling in Booker v. United States.

The other two federal sentencing cases the court has agreed to hear are also related to the confusion in the courts in the wake of Booker. One case, Rita v. United States, raises the question of whether a sentence within the guidelines range should be presumed reasonable. The second case, Gall v. United States, involved an Iowa college student given a sentence beneath the guidelines in an ecstasy case. The trial judge sentenced Gall to three years probation rather than three years in prison, but the US 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ordered resentencing, finding that such an "extraordinary" departure from the guidelines required "extraordinary" justification.

The Supreme Court will likely decide Rita in a few weeks, and will hear arguments in Gall in October. Kimbrough will carry over into the next term. But in the next few months, the Supreme Court will make decisions that will potentially affect the freedom of thousands of federal drug defendants each year.

Bush Seeks to Re-Impose Mandatory Minimums

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
CBS News
URL: 
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/06/13/politics/main2924206.shtml

Court to Weigh Disparities in Cocaine Laws

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States
Publication/Source: 
The New York Times
URL: 
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/12/washington/12scotus.html

Crack Cocaine Sentencing Headed to Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the U.S. v. Kimbrough case, in which an eastern-Virginia US District Court judge, Raymond Jackson, sentenced a crack cocaine offender -- Derrick Kimbrough -- to a below-guidelines sentence, only to be overruled following an appeal by the government to the 4th Circuit. "Guidelines" here refers to the federal sentencing guidelines (similar to, but not to be confused with the mandatory minimums), in which certain very harsh sentences require only 1/100th the amount of crack cocaine to get triggered as is required of powder cocaine. The "government" here refers to federal prosecutors, who objected that Judge Jackson had based his view that the guidelines sentence for Kimbrough's offense was unreasonable (a requirement for downward departures in the post-Booker ruling federal sentencing world, at least for now) in part on his disagreement over the policy of the harsher sentences for crack offenders. The Court of Appeals in the 4th Circuit agreed, and Kimbrough's sentence was kicked back up to the much-criticized guidelines level. Also before the Court is the case of Victor Rita, another crack cocaine defendant. And the Court has promised to pick a case that deals with the same issue as the one that was at stake in the case of Mario Claiborne, who died earlier this year (info at same link). While there are far more whites who use crack cocaine than blacks, as the Associated Press reported today, "[m]ost crack cocaine offenders in federal courts are black." Why does the 4th Circuit Appeals Court see the intellectual path a judge took to get to a finding of unreasonableness as more important than the self-evidently unreasonable nature of the draconian sentences they are defending? Both Mr. Kimbrough and Judge Jackson are African American, by the way. They are also both veterans -- Kimbrough fought in the first Gulf War; Jackson has a decades-long military career that included a stint as a JAG and includes continuing service as a colonel in the Reserves. The 4th Circuit decision, which is only two paragraphs long, is not published online (or so I've read), but visit the post made about this case on the Sentencing Law and Policy blog and scroll down to the third comment to read it. Our topical archive on the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is online here (though it only goes back to early fall -- you have to use the search engine for earlier stories). We also have a Federal Courts archive here Last but not least, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, click here to write to Congress in support of H.R. 460, Charlie Rangel's bill to reduce crack cocaine sentences to the same level as sentences for powder cocaine.
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United States

Charlie Rangel on Reentry, Crack Cocaine Sentencing and the Vote

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), a one-time drug warrior, made brief remarks on the floor of the US House of Representatives relating to criminal justice, including his support for the Second Chance Act (measures to help people coming out of prison to reenter society successfully) and for restoring the vote to people with past felony convictions, and his sponsorship of H.R. 460 to eliminate the harsher treatment that people convicted for crack cocaine offenses currently receive under the law relative to other cocaine offenses (along with other remarks that don't directly relate to drug policy). (Click here to write your US Representative in support of H.R. 460.) Nothing too huge here, but of interest, and good to see that the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee is focused on things like this.
Location: 
United States

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