ACLU Testifies Before United States Sentencing Commission for Fair Drug Sentencing Policies

November 14, 2006 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Jesselyn McCurdy, Legislative Counsel at the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, testified today at a public hearing held by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) about the continued unfairness and racial impact of federal drug sentencing policy. Despite repeated recommendations by the USSC, Congress has not addressed a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between distribution of powder and crack cocaine.

A recent ACLU report, Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law, supported the USSC’s recommendation that Congress reconsider the 100-to-1 disparity. The report, authored by Jesselyn McCurdy, Legislative Counsel, and Deborah Vagins, Policy Counsel for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, also recommends that federal prosecutions focus on high-level traffickers of both crack and powder cocaine, and supports the elimination of mandatory minimums for crack and powder offenses, especially the mandatory minimum for simple possession.

In her testimony, McCurdy emphasized the report’s core finding, that there is no scientific or penological justification for the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity ratio. Although Congress’ stated intent was to target high-level cocaine traffickers, the result has been just the opposite – in 2002, a USSC report found that only 15 percent of federal cocaine traffickers can be classified as high-level, while over 70 percent of crack defendants have low-level involvement in drug activity, such as street level dealers, couriers, or lookouts.

The sentencing disparity has had a devastating effect on women and communities of color. African Americans comprise the vast majority of those convicted of crack cocaine offenses, although whites and Hispanics form the majority of crack users. For example, in 2003, whites constituted 7.8 percent and African Americans constituted more than 80 percent of the defendants sentenced under the harsh federal crack cocaine laws, while more than 66 percent of crack cocaine users in the United States are white or Hispanic. In addition, sentencing policies, particularly the mandatory minimum for low-level crack offenses, subject women with minimal involvement in the drug trade to the same or harsher sentences as the major dealers in a drug organization.

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Jesselyn McCurdy’s testimony is available at:

The ACLU report, “Cracks in the System: Twenty Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law,” is available at:

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