Alexa
  • Directory of Taiwan

Cracks appear in drug policy

Cracks appear in drug policy

The fears and concerns that trouble many communities about methamphetamine today, 20 years ago plagued the nation regarding crack cocaine. Newscasters used words like "crisis" and "epidemic" - later shown to be overblown - to describe the impact of crack, as they now do for meth.
The political hysteria that ensued led Congress to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Signed 20 years ago this month, the law's mandatory penalties for crack offenses were the harshest ever adopted for low-level drug offenses. Two decades later, the results of this approach are all in, and they are sobering.
Despite crack and powder cocaine being pharmacologically identical, with the primary difference being the production and means of consumption, Congress established drastically different penalty structures for them, under the belief that crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine and posed a greater threat. Defendants convicted with just five grams of crack cocaine were subject to a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. The same five-year penalty was triggered for powder cocaine only when an offense involved 500 grams, 100 times the minimum quantity for crack.
The mandatory sentencing structure that continues today results in average sentences for crack cocaine offenses that are three and a half years longer than for offenses involving powder cocaine. Sentences for crack cocaine are also two years longer than for methamphetamine and five years longer than for heroin.
The impact of the crack cocaine provisions has been troubling on two counts. First, a significant racial disparity in prosecutions and confinement has ensued. Along with disproportionate law enforcement practices that target blacks, the crack sentencing policies expanded to 80 percent the proportion of crack cocaine defendants who are black despite the fact that a majority of crack cocaine users in the United States are white or Hispanic.
The drug penalties are the main cause of a 77 percent increase in the average time served by blacks for a drug offense between 1994 and 2003, compared to an increase of 28 percent for white drug offenders.
Second, a serious misdirection of federal resources has emerged. The crack law fails as an effective drug strategy by inappropriately targeting low-level offenders. While the federal courts are normally expected to focus on high level drug operations, nearly three-quarters of federal crack cocaine defendants have only low-level involvement in drug activity, such as street-level dealers, couriers or lookouts.
Misdirecting resources
This pursuit of low-level offenders diverts resources away from the most troublesome contributors to the illegal drug market, drug kingpins and importers.
As noted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in a report to Congress in 1997, "high penalties for relatively small amounts of crack cocaine appear to be misdirecting federal law enforcement resources."
Since 1995, the Sentencing Commission has called on Congress to fix the unfair sentencing disparity for crack cases, but the recommendation has been rejected by both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
This year, though, there is renewed momentum on Capitol Hill to reform the harsh crack cocaine penalties. Most notably, in July, Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican-Alabama, with bipartisan co-sponsorship, introduced legislation to lessen the inequality in crack cocaine sentences.
Although a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough. The proposal would raise the trigger amount for the five-year mandatory minimum to 20 grams from five grams, but lower the trigger threshold for powder cocaine, thus subjecting more cocaine defendants to a mandatory minimum sentence while still harshly punishing many low-level crack defendants.
Sessions is right to seek reform of the 20-year-old law but harsh mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses should not be applied to low-level drug defendants. Since state law enforcement agencies can and do prosecute these drug offenses, federal encroachment in this area is unwarranted.
The misinformation and hysteria that clouded the public debate on crack cocaine have done a disservice to developing responsible drug policy, while exacerbating the tragic racial disparities that plague our prison system. Members of Congress now have the facts about crack, and have an opportunity to redress this misguided policy. The time is now to mend the crack injustice.
Marc Mauer is the executive director and Kara Gotsch the advocacy director of The Sentencing Project in Washington.


Updated : 2021-10-20 22:28 GMT+08:00