U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Arguments on Crack-Powder Sentencing Disparity Case

Press Release September 30, 2007
Media Contact

Jasmine Tyler at 202-294-8292

Washington D.C. –The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday, October 2, 2007, in a crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity case (Kimbrough v. U.S., 06-6330). At issue is whether a federal judge has the discretion to impose a more lenient sentence on sellers of crack cocaine based on a finding that the 100:1 crack-powder ratio in the federal sentencing guidelines is unjust. The federal sentencing guidelines call for significantly longer prison terms for sellers of crack than for sellers of powder cocaine. In recent cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that judges can treat the sentencing guidelines as advisory only. Some circuit appeals courts, however, have established a rigorous test for sentences that fall below the guidelines, which critics say effectively make the guidelines mandatory–and unconstitutional. The case involves federal sentencing guidelines only, and will have no impact on statutory mandatory minimum sentences, which trump sentencing guidelines in most cases.

Timed with the oral arguments in the Kimbrough case, national advocates will deliver letters to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees requesting hearings to address mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine on Tuesday as well.

Additionally, criminal justice, drug policy and legal experts will speak at the George Washington University Law School on the disparity in federal sentencing laws for crack and powder cocaine. The discussion will focus on legislative, legal and grassroots strategies to end the disparity.

Currently, federal law punishes crack cocaine offenders much more severely than other drug offenders. For example, distributing just five grams of crack carries a minimum five-year federal prison sentence, while distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine carries the same sentence. This 100:1 sentencing disparity has been routinely criticized for its racially discriminatory impact by a wide array of criminal justice and civil rights groups. Although whites and Hispanics form the majority of crack users, the vast majority of those convicted of crack cocaine offenses are African Americans.

Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of the Office of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, says, “The African-American community has suffered for over two decades because of excessive crack cocaine sentences and it is exciting to know that there is momentum on the Hill to equalize the disparity. In the same two decades, scientific research has proven that crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same–it’s time for all cocaine offenses to be sentenced the same, and that should be at the current level of powder cocaine.”

It’s Not Fair, It’s Not Working: The Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity and Racial Inequality in the Criminal Justice System

Judge Arthur L. Burnett, Sr., National Executive Director, National African American Drug Policy Coalition

Ryan King, Policy Analyst, The Sentencing Project

Jesselyn McCurdy, Legislative Counsel, American Civil Liberties Union

Eric Sterling, President, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

Jasmine Tyler, Deputy Director of National Affairs, Drug Policy Alliance

Wednesday, October 3, 2007
5 p.m.
Reception to follow

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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