Pamela Alexander, Julie Stewart: Cocaine sentencing disparity must end

  • November 24, 2009 - 2:46 PM

We hope Congress was listening Wednesday when the nation's top prosecutor, Attorney General Eric Holder, told the Senate: "There are few areas of the law that cry out for reform more than federal cocaine sentencing policy."

Pending legislation in both houses of Congress would eliminate the so-called "100-to-1" ratio between crack and powder cocaine. That ratio means that offenders get a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for a crime involving 5 grams of crack -- but that it takes a hundred times that amount (500 grams) of powder cocaine to trigger the same prison term. Fifty grams of crack -- or 5,000 grams of powder cocaine -- garners a 10-year mandatory minimum.

Holder is right to put cocaine at the top of his reform list: No criminal-sentencing laws are more unjust and indefensible than those for federal crack-cocaine crimes. And for years, bipartisan support has been building to reform these laws. Republicans, Democrats, the Department of Justice, judges, the public, criminal-justice experts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission agree that the sentencing disparity isn't just unfair, it's also a nasty smear on the justice system.

The impact of that disparity falls heavily on African-Americans, who comprise 80 percent of those serving federal sentences for crack cocaine. Their sentences are almost 10 years on average, even though a typical crack-cocaine case involves just 52 grams -- the size of a candy bar -- and the defendants are overwhelmingly nonviolent and low-level. A conviction for 52 grams of powder cocaine would generate a prison sentence of less than two years.

An alarming byproduct of this kind of racial disparity is community distrust of the criminal-justice system. Police and judges confirm that citizens won't report crack crimes or serve on juries or even convict in crack cases because they know the defendants will be subject to unequal and discriminatory sentences.

Despite all of this, Congress has been painfully slow to act. It should take a lesson from Minnesota's sentencing law and pass the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009, a bill that would eliminate the sentencing difference between crack and powder cocaine. (Minnesota law makes no distinction.)

Public safety has a price -- one that, for the most part, we are willing to pay. But when a bad sentencing policy locks up the wrong people for too long, alienates the public, and frustrates prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, it's time to take a hard second look and make some adjustments. In Holder's words, "the stakes are simply too high to let reform in this area wait any longer."

Pamela Alexander, a former Hennepin County district judge, is president of the Council on Crime and Justice. Julie Stewart is president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

© 2018 Star Tribune