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February 20, 2008 - Sentencing Project (US)

U.N. Committee to Review Racial Injustice in U.S.

The Sentencing Project's Report to U.N. Highlights Racial Disparity in Federal Crack Cocaine Sentencing, Calls for Reform

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Beginning tomorrow, the United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination will hold hearings in Geneva, Switzerland, to review racial inequities in the United States, including disparities in criminal sentencing.

The Sentencing Project submitted a report to the Committee in December in preparation for this week's hearings. The national criminal justice reform organization called upon the Committee to hold the U.S. government accountable for failing to ensure equality before the law. Notably, its report argues that the racially disparate impact of federal cocaine sentencing laws violate requirements of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), to which the U.S. is a signatory.

"The U.S. Government's harsh sentencing policy for low-level crack cocaine offenses has unfairly incarcerated a disproportionate number of African American citizens in federal prisons," said Ryan S. King, Policy Analyst at The Sentencing Project and co-author of its report to the Committee. "No other drug is punished as severely under federal law and no other law has done more to create racial disparity within federal prisons."

Under current law it takes 100 times the quantity of powder cocaine to trigger the same mandatory minimum sentence as crack cocaine. The result of this penalty differential is that the average federal crack cocaine sentence is more than three years longer than a conviction for a powder cocaine offense.

This policy has had a catastrophic impact on the African American community because more than 80% of persons convicted of a federal crack cocaine offense are black, despite the fact that two-thirds of regular crack cocaine users are white or Latino. Meanwhile, only 27% of defendants convicted of powder cocaine offenses are African American.

The Committee will question representatives of the U.S. government Thursday and Friday in Geneva and offer concluding observations, including recommended reforms, in early March.

The Sentencing Project's report, Racial Disparities in Criminal Court Processing in the United States, offers input regarding the nation's compliance, and the need to reform current criminal justice practices.

It states that mandatory minimum sentencing practices, the result of 30 years of legislative policies that limit judicial discretion, have increased prosecutors' authority, greatly increased the length of imprisonment in many cases, and had a profound impact on African American and Latino communities.

Recommendations by The Sentencing Project urge that:

* The United States government should take steps to end all mandatory sentencing practices, returning sentencing discretion to judges;

* The United States government should amend penalties for crack cocaine to be equivalent with those for powder cocaine, at the current quantity threshold of powder cocaine; and

* The United States government should require the preparation of racial/ethnic impact statements to be submitted in conjunction with all sentencing and corrections legislation anticipated to effect measurable change on the incarcerated population.

This week's hearings occur during a time of unprecedented momentum for federal sentencing reform. In late 2007, the U.S. Sentencing Commission amended the federal sentencing guidelines to reduce the sentence length for certain individuals convicted of a crack cocaine offense and voted unanimously to apply this reform retroactively.

The U.S. Supreme Court also ruled in December that federal judges should be able to consider the impact of the 100-to-1 disparity when deciding a defendant's sentence. Finally, there are currently seven bills that have been introduced in Congress that would address federal cocaine sentencing, and the Senate and House have scheduled hearings on the issue this month.

This report to the CERD was prepared in conjunction with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and is available by clicking here.

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