It was almost two decades ago, in the midst of a crack cocaine epidemic, that Congress enacted mandatory minimum penalties for crack that amounted to 100 times the sentence for dealing in powder cocaine. It has long been recognized that the disparity has an disproportionate impact on blacks, who are predominantly involved in crack cases, but the divergent penalties remain on the lawbooks despite consistent efforts to amend the law. Yesterday, advocates for change held a roundtable discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The Justice Department declined to send a representative to defend the current policy.
One result of the differing sentencing levels is that the average low-level crack dealer spends more time in federal prison than do the averge high-level drug importers, said Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Sending a defendant to prison for five years for five grams of crack, costing $100,000 for the imprisonment, is “not a very creative use of resources,” complained Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project. Mauer noted that a compromise proposal in recent years to reduce the disparity attracted some “unlikely allies” like Republican Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.,), minority leader of the House crime subcommittee, said he hoped there could be an up-or-down vote on ending the crack-powder sentencing disparity rather than enacting a a compromise. “You can’t expect a lot of enthusiasm” for a plan to make the difference “20-1 racist rather than 100-1 racist,” he said.