Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Urges Congress to Improve Fairness of Crack/Cocaine Sentencing Laws

Media 05.22.02

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation’s oldest and most diverse coalition of civil and human rights organizations, today urged Congress to redress longstanding unfairness in federal drug laws. LCCR’s call for action came as the Crime Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee heard the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommend modest changes in the current 100 to 1 ratio between the amount of powder cocaine and the amount of crack cocaine triggering long mandatory sentences under a 1986 statute.

“Federal cocaine sentences have been unfair for the past fifteen years,” said Wade Henderson, Executive Director of LCCR. “We commend the Commission for putting this issue back before Congress. We only regret that the Commission did not go further.”

Under current law, the sale of 5 grams of crack cocaine results in the same five year mandatory minimum sentence as the sale of 500 grams of powder cocaine. The Commission has now recommended to Congress that the 5 gram threshold for crack be raised to “no less than 25 grams” and that powder sentences remain the same.

Laura Murphy, Director of the Washington Office of the ACLU and Chair of the LCCR Criminal Justice Task Force, noted that in 1995 an earlier Commission proposed to equalize crack and powder cocaine sentences. “The Commission got it right in 1995. Congress blocked that proposal, but it is still supported by the scientific evidence,” Murphy said. “It is good that the Commission is making improvements, but they should have come closer to a 1 to 1 ratio.”

Despite scientific evidence that crack and powder cocaine are pharmacologically identical, the Justice Department contends that the 100 to 1 ratio is “proper” and disparity should only be remedied by raising powder cocaine sentences. “We are glad the Commission rejected DOJ’s call to bring more low level defendants under these harsh mandatory laws,” said Charles Kamasaki, Senior Vice President of the National Council of La Raza. “Due to unfair enforcement strategies, Latinos are over half of all powder cocaine defendants in federal court. Under no circumstances should these penalties be raised,” said Kamasaki.

Hilary O. Shelton, Director of the Washington Bureau of the NAACP, criticized racial disparities in current law. “Federal statistics show that more Whites than Blacks use crack cocaine, but over 93% of all crack defendants are African-American. Minorities are almost exclusively subjected to these harsh laws. At least the Commission is getting started in making sentences more fair.”

LCCR’s Wade Henderson concluded: “Now the responsibility lies with Congress. We call on Congress to fix this problem once and for all. The Commission has pointed Congress in the right direction, but Congress needs to go the extra mile for justice. The drug war will continue to lack credibility in minority communities until these sentencing laws are changed.”