Bill Piper at 202-669-6430 or Tony Newman at 646-335-5384
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling yesterday allowing lower sentences for people who commit crack cocaine offenses. At issue was whether federal judges have the discretion to impose sentences on sellers of crack cocaine that are lower than federal sentencing guidelines call for if they determine that the recommended crack sentences are unjust because they are harsher than recommended sentences for power cocaine offenses. By a 7-2 vote, the court ruled that a federal judge could give a black veteran of the 1991 war with Iraq a 15-year sentence, even though sentencing guidelines called for the veteran to receive 19 to 22 years.
“This decision makes it clear that federal judges have a right to vote their conscience and ignore sentencing guidelines that are racist, unfair or cruel,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The ruling will reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system and hopefully send a message to federal prosecutors that they should stop wasting resources on nonviolent, low-level crack cocaine offenders and focus on taking down organized crime syndicates instead.”
Earlier this year the U.S. Sentencing Commission partially reduced recommended sentences for crack cocaine offenses, citing the injustice of imposing penalties for crack cocaine that were higher than penalties for powder cocaine offenses. Those sentencing changes took effect November 1. The Commission is expected to vote today on whether or not to apply the sentencing reductions retroactively. Doing so could make 19,500 federal prisoners eligible for early release over the next several decades.
Neither the Supreme Court decision nor either of the Sentencing Commission’s decisions, however, will solve the fundamental problem with crack and powder cocaine sentencing. Federal mandatory minimums enacted by Congress in the 1980s punish crack cocaine offenses 100 times more severely than powder cocaine offenses. This 100 to 1 statutory disparity is creating rampant racial disparities in the federal criminal justice system and unintentionally encouraging federal law enforcement agencies to focus on low-level drug law offenders instead of major traffickers. Only Congress can change the federal mandatory minimum sentences.
Four bills have been introduced in Congress to reduce the crack/powder cocaine disparity–two by Democrats and two by Republicans. The Senate is set to have hearings on the issue early next year. No hearings have been scheduled in the House, and supporters of eliminating the disparity say House Democrats are ignoring the issue.
“The biggest obstacle to eliminating the racist crack/powder disparity is not the Bush Administration or law enforcement, it’s the House Democratic leadership,” said Piper. “While the Supreme Court, the Sentencing Commission and Senate Democrats and Republicans push forward with reform, House Democrats won’t even have hearings on the issue. Their silence on this issue is sending a signal to communities across the country that they don’t care about reducing racial disparities.”