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December 26, 2006

Examining crack sentencing in the new Congress

Naal615_law_20061225190821 Today's Wall Street Journal has this extended article discussing how the new Congress might impact federal sentencing rules.  The article focuses particularly on the long-running crack-cocaine sentencing debate, and it suggests that the US Sentencing Commission has an amendment to the crack guidelines in the works.  Here is how the article begins:

With Democrats poised to take control of Congress, law-enforcement officials are preparing to defend two decades of federal sentencing policies that mandated harsh prison terms on a variety of crimes and led to a boom in the prison population.

Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Robert Scott (D., Va.) have already said they plan hearings early in the term to look at how nonviolent drug offenders are punished under mandatory minimum laws.  An early target will be the prison terms mandated by Congress for crack-cocaine convictions.

Under current law, someone caught with five grams of crack gets a five-year sentence, while it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence, even though there is no physiological difference.  Critics have long maintained that the law unfairly targets African-American communities, where crack is more prevalent. In contrast, suburban white users tend to prefer cocaine in its powder form.  Mr. Conyers has called the crack-cocaine sentences the "most outrageous example of the unfairness of mandatory minimums."

Democrats are buoyed by recent signals from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for judges to use in an advisory capacity when they hand down sentences.  Members of the commission are likely to recommend a change in the crack-cocaine penalties next year, according to commission members.  The commission has tried since 1995 to bring the penalties for crack crimes more in line with powder cocaine but the Republican-controlled Congress has ignored past attempts.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  Interestingly diverse reactions to the WSJ article can be found at Crime & Consequences and White Collar Crime Prof Blog.

December 26, 2006 at 08:23 AM | Permalink


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Ah, the race card. Always so interesting to see it played. It is one thing to suggest that black criminals are treated worse than white criminals, quite another to state that a community is targeted.

Lenience for black offenders, given the fact that most crime is intra-racial, could also be seen to be targeting African-American communities. Having lived a good portion of my formative years in one such place, I can say with certainty that lenience for criminals was not a good thing.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 26, 2006 11:50:55 AM

I am a paralegal from Kansas, and the "crack cocaine" disparity is absolutely rediculous. Just another form of politicians out of control. They us the crack cocaine pandemic to trick citizens into giving them the vote. As a former drug addict, I can tell you that crack is no more dangerous than any other drug and the sentencing disparity is simple stupidity. It does not matter if it was created without consideration to racial implications, the fact is, and the government now knows, that it does disproportionately impact minorities and they have a duty to correct it. Creating stupid law is one thing, perpetuation it is quite another.

Posted by: Thomas | Dec 26, 2006 12:53:41 PM

Thomas, if you lived in NYC during the 80s, I think you'd rethink the statement that crack is no more dangerous than say marijuana. The social effects of a drug are important too.

Posted by: federalist | Dec 26, 2006 2:02:00 PM


The problem with your argument is that it falsely equates efforts to modify what many people regard as very unduly harsh sentencing policies with "leniency". We could cut our drug sentences in half and still not be remotely "lenient" compared to most other western democracies. We have a very high prison population in this country, and some of us think it is possible to do something about it without harming -- and, indeed, while furthering -- public safety concerns. One principal way is modify unduly harsh sanctions for low-level drug dealers. What part of this is so difficult for you to accept?

Posted by: Practicing Lawyer | Dec 26, 2006 2:22:19 PM

The social effects of drugs stems from the high cost of purchasing them, not the effects they have on the individual user. I agree with practicing lawyer, the decriminalization of drugs altogether, with the exception of giving it to minors, would far better serve society. Take the half of prisoners in on drug offenses out of prison and spend that thirty thousand per person a year on rehab. You will also kill the market and any value to the commodity. Nobody will rob or kill over something they can get for little of nothing. A real drug addict will get his dope regardless of the consequences and can only be helped through serious therapy, not prison. The pandemic of the '80's is no different from the one going on now. Prison is best suited for killers and rapists, not socially unacceptable behavior.

Posted by: thomas | Dec 26, 2006 7:50:13 PM

Well, "federalist", I am pleased that your opinion of weed cases has taken a more liberal bent. Have you joined NORML? The weed penalties under the Guidelines are absurd, and place defendants in jail for long periods of time with no ameliorative impact on society. I am curious, tho, are there any bills to reduce the weed penalities?

Posted by: Bernie Kleinman | Dec 26, 2006 8:50:47 PM

Mr. Kleinman, this is all I'm aware of:

Everybody else, there's no need to rehash all of the generalized arguments re: the criminal drug laws. Whatever you think of "federalist"'s posts, his first comment was at least on topic.

Whatever happens, I hope that the hearings are decent discussion instead of business as usual in Congress.

Posted by: Bill | Dec 27, 2006 9:43:28 AM

I am not quite sure of the point of the "Onion" piece. Hopefully, "Bill's" legal research is a little tidier. Also, "federalist's" line: "Having lived a good portion of my formative years in one such place, I can say with certainty that lenience for criminals was not a good thing." is meaningless. I have no idea where he lived, and that has nothing to do with the issue. It makes him no more an expert than me having grown up in the suburbs. The point is more that the guideline penalties for drug use/possession are draconian and will never solve the problem. Removing the crack/cocaine disparity in the Guidelines would more of a proof of Congress' intent on making the sentencing laws fairer.

Posted by: Bernie Kleinman | Dec 27, 2006 2:17:34 PM

Why is it always difficult for white folks to understand and belive how rules are different for white America and Black America? The crack cocaine sentencing disparity has existed for numerous years, long after crack subsided. Now that crystal meth is the new scourge drug, will we see the mandatory sentencing for this drug offence increase? Or is that a "white drug?" Racism is alive and well in America and permeates everything. Until we have true equality, these discussions will never stop. Sadly, it won't be during my lifetime...

Posted by: Wendy Day | Jan 1, 2007 1:58:37 PM

se toma como delito traer 5 kilos aparentemente de cocaina pero realmente conteniendo harina de hot cakes esque a mi esposo le esta ocurriendo esta situacion yo creo por asustarlo le han dicho q la policia lo toma como si fuera de verdad y lo enjuiciaran como si fuera de verdad y aqui la unica verdad q existe esque realmente eran de harina ojala me pudieran sacar de la duda porque no me quieren dar informes de ningun tipo gracias por su comprension.

Posted by: maribel duarte | Feb 11, 2007 2:08:18 AM

Republicans, can you say Crystal Meth. By the way who is sponsoring a bill for mandatory sentencing?

Posted by: | Feb 20, 2007 12:55:33 PM

I'm not entirely sure what some of you are arguing, so I throw this out there. In the fields of criminology and criminological theories, there is one theory that is called the "Social Conflict Theory". For those who may be unfamilliar with this theory it states in short that, those in power make laws that keep them in power. Before anyone chalks this up as a farce, apply it to the cocaine issue. The sentencing guidelines are clear in showing that it takes roughly 100x the amount of powder cocaine to get the same level of punishment as crack cocaine, while both have the same effect on the human body. Now who is most likely to have each in their possession? The lower class citizens are more likey to have the crack. While on the other hand, powder cocain is the choice of the upper class citizens. It is not only an issue of race, but more of an issue of social standing. Upper class citizens want to stay in power, so moving the spot light to the less fortunate is a way of insureing that they remain there. Police are more likely to focus on crimes that are more likely to get convictions with long prison sentences, rather than those who will probably plea bargin their way to probation anyway. This move by congress is a step in forward in insuring the equal justice under the law ideal, however, crack laws do not need to be brought down, but powder cocaine penalties need to be brought up to the same level. For anyone who may be interested in learning more about the social conflict theory, I am currently working on an academic research paper explaing in more detail the origin of the theory, and its practical application in the explaination of the social disperities in the criminal justice field and would be more than happy to provide a copy of the finished report, also if anyone has any questions reguarding my opinion, or would like to like to provide information that i can cite in the paper please send me an email to "[email protected]". Use Social conflict or crim theories as the subject header.

Posted by: Kevin | Mar 21, 2007 11:32:39 PM

I not really up to date with the topic, but my father us is currently serving 15 years in Federal Prison. I've spent about 7 years without my dad. Yes,my father sold crack as the call it, but that was just a way to make money for his family. My dad is a wonderful person, he's always helped me, and cared for me. I believe a crime should be punshied, but at the same time realist. I as well he knows he's made a big mistake. So all these years he has to sit up in prison for a crime he regrets, but yet did it to help his daughter. Please take heed be fair, take it as it was one of your family members. I love my dad, and im praying this new law comes in affect so my dad can come home. He only has about 5-6 years left,so with the bill being passed he will only have about 2-3 years. Pray for me please. Thank you.

Posted by: DeeDee Maxwell | Dec 11, 2007 11:39:27 PM

well what,s fair only GOD he,s the judge and juror so many did it to provide for their familys.all knowing what would happen,what make anyone thank they won,t get caught,doing wrong,but so many was sat up by the law,they planted drugs on people,my bro.they got nothing off him they took his furniture,they said aint no black man,can aford to live like this,his son heard them talking,they told me when i see my bro. again he would be in a wooden box,seem like they trying to make it happen he sick now,but u know i am gona pray for those people because i know God got it,he said vengence is his.he lost both parents a wife a child both in-laws sis-ni-law 2 nepews 1 niece i pray that he make it home alive it,s in GOD HAND

Posted by: bonnette | Jan 4, 2008 11:12:22 PM

I,m writing in regards of a young black man in Hammond In who wsa arrested for selling crack and they gave him life in prison. The hammond cops tried to kill this young man he was just bullied by them . He did not get a fair trial. they have put him in some of the worst prisons in america. They wont even give him legal councle

Posted by: k harrington | Apr 14, 2009 12:07:44 PM

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