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Sentencing: Attorney General Calls for Elimination of Crack-Powder Cocaine Disparity

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #591)
Politics & Advocacy

US Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that the gap in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses must go. Holder's remarks came as he addressed a legal discussion sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus.

Eric Holder
Under federal sentencing laws in place since the mid-1980s, five grams of crack cocaine earns a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, but it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same sentence. This 100-to-1 disparity has hit black defendants the hardest. According to US government figures, 82% of federal crack offenders are black and only 9% white.

Pressure has been building for the past decade to reform those laws and reduce or eliminate that disparity. The notion has broad support even in Congress, but faces a perilous path among competing bills and competing notions about how the disparity should be addressed -- eliminate it completely, lower the ratio, or even increase powder penalties -- and how broadly the entire federal sentencing structure needs to be reformed.

Holder made it clear where the administration stands. "One thing is very clear: We must review our federal cocaine sentencing policy. This administration firmly believes that the disparity in crack and powdered cocaine sentences is unwarranted," Holder said. "It must be eliminated."

That's a stark contrast with the Bush administration, which fought hard to maintain the current cocaine sentencing structure despite opposition from the US Sentencing Commission, drug and criminal justice system reform advocates, an increasing number of prosecutors and judges, and an increasing number of legislators.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


glenstark (not verified)

I realize that I am going against the current here, but I'm not sure this is such a no-brainer. If you are going to support a prohibitionist stance, it would make sense to have the relative illegality (degree of consequence) be proportionate to the danger of the drug. The danger of a specific drug is clearly dependant on the method of administration, so the sentencing desparity, while racist in effect, is not necessarily racist in design.

For example Britain schedules amphetamines differently depending on if they are being administered as pill or using needle, which is a sensible approach.

Of course the very idea that drug use or abuse should be punished criminally is one that should be questioned, even in the case of harmful drugs. But I believe making a legal (and safety) destinction between freebased cocaine (including crack) and powdered (via snorting) is valid.

In a more rational society, I think the coca leaf would be available in grocery stored and service stations. Cocaine should probably regulated rather heavily, something a bit more serious than how we handle alcohol perhaps (just based on it's rational scale of danger). Crack would probably best remain illegal, but following a more civilized policy of enforcement (e.g. mandatory counseling with maintenance programs rather than prison time).

I realize the motivation here is to remove a race disparity, which is a laudable goal, but it has the side effect of making our drug laws even less rational.

Fri, 06/26/2009 - 7:44am Permalink
mrclay (not verified)

In reply to by glenstark (not verified)

You're right that it should be considered a different drug (crack is probably not more "dangerous" per se than powder, but probably has a higher capture rate into heavy, frequent use) but 100x is ridiculous and obviously a knee-jerk "solution" that sounded good to people who felt *something* needed to be done about crack, but without thinking of what.

Fri, 06/26/2009 - 5:39pm Permalink
mrclay (not verified)

In reply to by glenstark (not verified)

Glen, google "Eric Sterling" to find out the ridiculous storm in which these dumb laws where quickly whipped up.

Fri, 06/26/2009 - 5:43pm Permalink
John Koons (not verified)

The forces in place that formed and kept this disparity in place were the same that drove the "common sense" argument for maintaining and ratcheting up prohibition enforcement: sensationalism. Medical rationale is never needed when a politician can refer to "crack baby" cases and inner city gangs killing each other over territory and drug profits in order to become a hero and pass increased penalties for whatever the current drug menage happens to be at the time the media popularizes these scares. At that point, all sensible discussion gets tossed out.


Fri, 06/26/2009 - 5:35pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

between assholes and good guys in Congress. Right now, it's a very high ratio of assholes to good guys and nobody seems to care.

Fix that ratio and he won't have to worry about the coke vs crack ratio since prohibition will have been ended.

Sat, 06/27/2009 - 12:34am Permalink
Metalfreiza (not verified)

This argument to equalize the punishment is totally ridiculous, and I'm already tired of reading about it-that law need not be changed! The fact that crack is cheap and therefore more available to the poor has nothing to do with it because crack is highly addictive to the rich and the poor alike, so poor people just need to find a new way to make $ without getting everyone hooked on super-addictive drugs for god's sake! I know which one is more addictive because I've tried them, and I hate coke! When you hit crack you go str8 to that heavenly whole body orgasm in like ten seconds and IMMEDIATELY want more and badly as it takes you to the same place a lot faster than coke, so of course it is more addictive! I'm enraged by people who argue that just because black people aren't as likely to actually use crack and are more likely to get busted selling it (or having it for an unknown reason-their case somehow merely "involves" crack-stupid defense), they don't deserve any harsh punishments. They won't taste their own medicine because they'd rather use addicts, who are willing to pay their outrageous prices, for $ and power! Why not contrast this idea with the one that Mexico had about why they should legalize small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, and heroine for personal use. They did that because they didn't want to continue to fill their jails with "people who have these addictions". In the same way, people who are busted with possessing coke or small amounts of crack for personal use in the USA may be offered rehab as part of a deferral program to help with their addiction because they are prone to use (5 grams is NOT a small amount of crack for personal use). But then we have these non-using, black, crack dealers! They don't get involved with crack because they have a substance abuse problem at all as half of them have never used it in their whole life; they only get involved with crack because they don't wanna work, and they wanna make free $ on the black market even though they know that it could be at the expense of their own freedom! They actually DECIDE to do that in spite of the well-known consequences. They're too smart to be foolish enough to use the addictive substance, but the truth is they're not smart enough to keep from getting set up and sent to prison for life for selling it to criminal informants like myself. They just need to go to jail for trying to mess everyone up for free $! And I think that the fact that they don't use makes their involvement with the substance less understandable and not more so! If the punishment for crack is so bad, why don't they just stop selling crack? Most white people find other, more productive, ways to make a living as they are less likely get caught in that net of justice because crack is an extremely addictive drug that is dangerous to get busted screwing around with and for good reason! They're always getting busted with it, yet statistics show they don't use it as much. So it's laughable to suggest that they should be offered any chance of drug treatment instead of prison. That will not fix them-they are sick, lazy people looking for any easy way OUT and using a hard substance that often ends up being an easy way IN to some hard time! It's not racial disparity, it's disparity against fools!

Fri, 01/15/2010 - 4:56am Permalink

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