Arthur Burnett, a senior Washington, D.C. Superior Court judge, still is campaigning against the federal five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for possessing five grams of crack cocaine, says the Washington Post. No other drug law metes out so much punishment for such a small offense, he says. No other drug law makes such a peculiar distinction between different forms of the same drug: If a person has powdered cocaine, it takes 100 grams to get five years — even though crack is nothing more than a heated mixture of powdered cocaine and baking soda.
“I’ve handled thousands of these cases, and in many instances you had African American youths being coerced by gangs to aid and abet in the distribution of crack,” Burnett told columnist Courtland Milloy. “They weren’t profiteering; they were just trying to keep from getting shot. You had women who were victims of domestic abuse. If they didn’t hold the drugs or help make deliveries, the boyfriend would put them out and they’d end up homeless, living out of a car. And for that, they’d get sent to prison for five years. What rankled me most was having my hands tied and being unable to evaluate individual circumstances.” The U.S. Sentencing Commission has urged Congress to cut sentences for low-level cocaine offenders and repealing the mandatory minimum penalty for crack cocaine possession. About 100,000 people have been given mandatory five-year sentences since the law was passed in 1986. As low-level dealers and users went to prison, new ones took their places. Cocaine kingpins kept importing drugs with virtual impunity.