Calling Administration Position Extreme, ACLU Urges Rational End to Discriminatory Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

March 19, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today urged the United States Sentencing Commission to redouble its efforts to abolish the dramatic disparities in sentencing policy between crack and powder cocaine, and called the Administration’s proposal to lessen the disparity by increasing powder sentences “extreme.”

“The sentences for crack offenses need to fall to a level in line with the punishments for powder,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office. “The Administration is being extreme in its suggestion that the solution is to raise powder cocaine sentences to the same brutal and unnecessary level as crack.”

Murphy testified this afternoon before the United States Sentencing Commission, the organization responsible for submitting to Congress recommendations for criminal sentencing.

In her testimony, Murphy said that because of several factors, such as racially uneven enforcement patterns, reducing the sentencing disparity by increasing penalties for powder offenses – as suggested today by Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson – would only have the effect of putting more people of color behind bars. The only solution, Murphy said, is to decrease sentences for crack offenses to a level in line with those for equivalent powder offenses.

The sentencing disparity between the two forms of cocaine dates back to 1988 when Congress established a special sentencing exception for cocaine base or “crack.” That year, Congress increased the penalties for the sale of crack cocaine so that a dealer with five grams of crack received the same punishment as a dealer who had 500 grams of powder cocaine, a disparity of 100-to-1. Congress also increased the penalty for simple possession of crack to five years. Before that time, the law did not distinguish between the punishment for powder and crack cocaine.

According to past reports by the Sentencing Commission, the majority of people prosecuted for both crack and powder cocaine offenses have been people of color. Of the total of powder cocaine cases in 2000, 57 percent were brought against Latinos and 30 percent against African-Americans, even though the vast majority of powder cocaine users were white. Crack prosecutions are skewed even further toward racial and ethnic minorities.

“Based on ignorance and media fueled hysteria,” Murphy said, “Congress has, for the last 14 years, tied the hands of federal judges by forcing them to impose brutally harsh mandatory minimum sentences on crack users and dealers.

“Now the Administration has offered more rope to tie their hands further,” Murphy concluded. “What could be more extreme than support for these draconian punishments that fall primarily on people of color and ruin tens of thousands of lives? We must redouble our efforts to end this tragic injustice.”

The ACLU’s testimony can be found at:

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