Racial Overtones in Cocaine Sentencing?

In the mid 1980s, crack was public enemy No. 1.

It first appeared in inner-city America. But after a barrage of news reports about a possible epidemic of brain-damaged crack babies, and how this relatively inexpensive drug drove its users to violence, all of America knew, or thought they knew, exactly what kind of menace crack was.

"People had the feeling that they were going to be shot or knifed by somebody high on crack cocaine on their way home," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

With the war on drugs at a fever pitch, crack was viewed as the most serious threat. The federal government imposed mandatory sentences on those convicted of crack possession that were literally 100 times more severe than sentences imposed on those convicted of powder cocaine possession.

That doesn't mean getting caught using crack gets someone 100 times as long a sentence as someone caught with powder cocaine. It means it takes 100 times more powder cocaine to get the same penalty as crack.

The guidelines stipulate that a person convicted of possession of 5 grams of crack, equivalent to five packets of sugar, must serve at least five years. But powder cocaine, from which crack is made and without which crack wouldn't exist, has much shorter prison sentences related to its possession. Five grams of crack gets you five years in prison, but it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence.

"The sentences ought to be fair and just," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "I don't think the current law can be defended."

‘We Ought to Fix It’

Sessions once thought the huge disparity was justified. He no longer does.

"Since we can't defend the current law we ought to fix it," said Sessions, a former prosecutor who co-sponsored the Drug Sentencing Reform Act of 2001. "We thought early on that if we worked at it hard, and that we could deter crack cocaine use in America and use these tough penalties to stop its spread, which was primarily in the African-American community."

Most crack arrests occur in African-American communities. Since more-affluent whites typically constitute users of powder cocaine, many feel the disparity in arrests and sentencing has racist overtones.

"I don't know what was in the minds of the legislators when they enacted the disparity between the handling of both powder and crack cocaine, but clearly the result has been a racial divide in this country," said Terry J. Hatter, a federal judge in Los Angeles. "Some 95 or more percent of young blacks and Latinos are the ones who find themselves being sentenced under the crack laws."

"That's one of the reasons why there's such an extraordinary number of African-Americans in prison for really doing the same kind of thing that some very affluent white areas might be doing, whether it's in Hollywood or New York or Washington or corporate boardrooms," Leahy said. "If you're doing the powder cocaine in a corporate boardroom, nothing is probably ever going to happen to you. If you're doing the crack cocaine in an inner city, you could spend years and years in jail."

‘I Had Never Been in Trouble’

Derrick Curry was a 19-year-old basketball whiz in Washington, D.C., when he got caught in a borrowed car with almost 500 grams of crack cocaine. He was convicted of conspiracy to sell crack cocaine.

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