Judge: Cocaine Sentencing Disparity 'Unconscionable'
By Matt Apuzzo, Associated Press
WASHINGTON - A federal judge who served as a top drug policy advisor to the first President Bush and advocated harsher penalties for crack cocaine crimes said Tuesday the policy had gone too far and was undermining faith in the judicial system.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton told the U.S. Sentencing Commission that federal laws requiring dramatically longer sentences for crack cocaine than for cocaine powder were "unconscionable" and contributed to the perception within minority communities that courts are unfair.
"I never thought that the disparity should be as severe as it has become," said Walton, who sits on the bench in Washington, where he previously served as a Superior Court judge, a federal prosecutor and a deputy drug czar.
The current law includes what critics have called the 100-to-1 disparity: Trafficking in 5 grams of cocaine carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence, but it takes 500 grams of cocaine powder to warrant the same sentence.
Advocates for changing the law point to crime statistics that show crack is more of an inner-city drug while cocaine powder is used more often in the suburbs.
The Sentencing Commission which has thrice recommended that Congress narrow the sentencing gap, is again reviewing the disparity. Previous recommendations, which were not adopted, have included raising the penalties for powder cocaine and lowering them for crack.
The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration, indicated Tuesday that it welcomed a discussion about the sentencing disparity but adamantly opposed lowering the penalties for crack.
November 16, 2006 - San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Editorial: Crack Cocaine Sentencing Guidelines Need Changes
Twenty years ago, Congress passed an unwise, unjust law mandating long prison terms for people caught with small amounts of crack cocaine. As a result, small-time users, dealers and couriers -- overwhelmingly poor black men -- are locked up for years while big-time traffickers keep cocaine supplies flowing.
The law requires five years in prison for five grams of crack cocaine -- the weight of a few sugar packets; it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence. It's time to change the law.
In 1995, 1997 and 2002, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which advises Congress and the federal judiciary, called for eliminating or modifying the 100-to-1 disparity in cocaine penalties. But nobody wanted to look soft on drugs.
Tuesday, the commission held new hearings. U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, deputy drug czar in the elder Bush's administration, called the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity ``unconscionable.'' Minorities see harsh sentences for crack, primarily an inner-city drug, as proof courts are biased, he said. It's expected the commission will try again to get Congress to revise the 1986 law.
Federal crack defendants aren't drug kingpins: The commission estimates 73 percent of crack defendants were low-level street dealers, couriers or lookouts, writes Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project. ``The commission also has found that crack cocaine sentences are the single most significant factor contributing to racial disparity in federal sentencing.''
In 1995, the Sentencing Commission urged equalizing penalties for crack and powder cocaine. President Clinton and Congress just said no. Told to try again, the commission suggested a 5-to-1 disparity in 1997. Nothing happened.
In 2001, President Bush supported ``making sure the powder-cocaine and the crack-cocaine penalties are the same. I don't believe we ought to be discriminatory.''
In 2002, Bush's Justice Department opposed reducing crack penalties, arguing that crack cocaine causes more violence and addiction than powder cocaine because it's typically sold in small, cheap doses. Justice called for reducing the 100-to-1 disparity by raising penalties for powder cocaine.
That's still the administration's position, but there are signs of good sense in Congress. Earlier this year, bipartisan legislation was introduced to raise the amount of crack needed to trigger federal penalties, while lowering the amount of powder cocaine. Action is possible in 2007.
Just reducing the 100-to-1 disparity isn't enough.
A better idea comes from Eric Sterling, who helped write the 1986 anti-crack law as a House Judiciary staffer. Now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Sterling argues that the new law should ``raise the quantity triggers for all drugs to realistic levels for high-level traffickers, such as 50 or 100 kilos of cocaine.''
Federal prosecutors should focus resources on the big fish. State and local authorities can prosecute the small fry.
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