DRCNetDrug Reform Coordination Network

7/22/97

Legislative/Media Alert on
Crack/Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

We've just been informed that CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, TONIGHT, will cover the Clinton Administration's recent recommendations on reducing the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparities. Among the interviewees are Julie Stewart President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and Dr. Arthur Curry, whose son is serving 19 years in prison for crack cocaine. CBS News airs at 7:00est in the Washington area (we think); we don't have information for what times it airs elsewhere. Due to the short notice with which this information has come out, we are unable to research air times more thoroughly.

A front page article in today's New York Times explained that Attorney General Janet Reno and Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey had recommended to President Clinton that the current threshold for triggering the 5-year mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine be raised from 5 grams to 25 grams (good), and that the threshold for powder cocaine be lowered from 500 grams to 250 grams (bad).

Last year, the Sentencing Commission had recommended that the crack threshold be raised to 500 grams so that the sentences for crack be equal to those of powder at the current powder level. The Commission's recommendations, which would have become law on November 1 if Congress had done nothing, were reversed by the Congress, for the first time in the Commission's history. The Commission had noted in its thorough report that there was not a scientific basis for treating the two drugs differently (crack is powder cocaine mixed with baking soda and cooked in a microwave), federal sentencing already allowed for longer sentences if violence or other such factors were involved, and that there was not a sense within the criminal justice system that sentences for powder cocaine were too short.

In the context of the Commission's thoughtful deliberations, the Administration's recommendations don't go far enough with crack cocaine sentences, and unnecessarily increase powder cocaine sentences. While it has been correctly noted that the crack/powder sentencing disparity has a racially disproportionate impact, it is often not noted that increasing powder cocaine penalties will have a disproportionate impact on African Americans as well. Mandatory minimums as a whole have been shown to be ineffective, and have a devastating human cost. (A collection of mandatory minimum cases can be viewed at http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/prisoners/ on DRCNet's web site.)

We are asking our supporters to contact the President and Congress to voice their support for lowering crack cocaine sentences even more than his Cabinet members have recommended, and their opposition to raising powder cocaine sentences.

We are also asking our members to submit letters to the editor to the New York Times. In addition to the points outlined above, a charge you can make is that the Administration is attempting to appear to be providing leadership, while really trying to resolve a difficult political situation by doing as little as possible. Letters to the Editor to the New York Times can be sent to [email protected]. Please cc them to [email protected]

Readers can educate themselves on mandatory minimums by visiting the FAMM web site at http://www.famm.org and DRCNet's Prisoners of the Drug War site at http://stopthedrugwar.org/prisoners/. The executive summary of the recent RAND report, making the case against mandatory minimums on the basis of cost-effectiveness, can be found online at http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR827/.

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