Obama on Crack

Obama says he supports eliminating the 100-to-1 crack sentencing disparity

Sentencing Commission Chair, Texas Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, agrees disparity should disappear
Sentencing Commission Chair, Texas Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, agrees disparity should disappear

President Barack Obama supports the adoption of a one-to-one crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing scheme, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer told a Congressional subcommittee this morning, which would finally, officially, kill the infamous 100-to-one sentencing disparity on the books since the 1980s. Obama believes Congress should "completely eliminate the sentencing disparity," Breuer told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs. "[C]riminal laws should be tough, smart, and fair, and perceived as such by the American public."

Under the much reviled 100-to-one federal scheme, a person with 5 grams of crack cocaine would net a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, but it would take getting popped with 500 grams of powder coke to net the same federal man-min -- despite the fact that the drug is the same. The United States Sentencing Commission has long argued that the law should be changed: The scheme has done nothing to get so-called kingpins off the street, they reported in 2007, it overstates the "seriousness of most crack cocaine offenses," and disproportionately impacts African Americans. Moreover, crack cocaine is the only drug that currently nets a federal man-min sentence for simple possession, another provision of the sentencing scheme that the U.S.S.C. says should be eliminated. (The Commission also argues that penalties should be equalized by raising quantities of crack to meet that of powder, not by downgrading powder penalties to meet the punitive penalties associated with crack. There is simply no evidence to suggest another approach is necessary, the Commission has said.)

Judge Reggie Walton, who sits on the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, told lawmakers that ending the crack cocaine disparity is "one of the most important issues confronting our criminal justice system today." It is fundamentally "unjust," he said, "and disproportionately impacts people that look like me." Indeed, Texas federal Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, who is also acting chair of the U.S.S.C., told the subcommittee that in fiscal year 2008, more than 80% of defendants sentenced to do federal time on crack charges were African American. made up more than 80% of defendants sentenced to do time for crack crime.

Miami Police Chief John Timoney and former Drug Enforcement Administration head Asa Hutchinson also testified in favor of eliminating the discrepancy. The result of the 100-to-1 sentencing scheme has been "unmitigated disaster," said Timoney, who is also president of the Police Executive Research Forum. The impact on many African American families is "un-American and intolerable," and "defies logic from a law enforcement perspective." Not only does punishing minor crack defendants (many of them users) do nothing to get drugs off the street, but the unjust law makes it harder for police to develop good relationships with community, he said, when a "glaring inequity in the...system" is allowed to persist.

Hutchinson said he didn't think enforcement should be based on quantity, but on quality -- a shift in focus that would concentrate policing resources on making cases against traffickers. A mule might have more on him, he said, but he certainly isn't a kingpin. (Indeed, Timoney added that additional resources should be focused on drug treatment and rehabilitation inside prisons. "The un-sexy part of the criminal justice system is corrections, and not enough money goes there," he said.)

To drive the point home, Cedric Parker, a member of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told lawmakers the story of his sister, Eugenia Jennings, was convicted of trading small amounts of crack cocaine for designer clothing and was sentenced to 22 years in prison. She was just 23 and had three young children to care for. Jennings had a tragically rough upbringing, Parker said, and was sexually abused by several caregivers before she wound up on the street. Since she's been in prison, he said, Jennings has cleaned up, gone to school, and acted as a role model for others. If rehabilitation was the goal, she attained it -- yet she will likely be in prison until at least 2019. If she had been caught with cocaine, Jennings' sentence would have been less than half of what she got. Jennings' predicament apparently was not lost on the judge who sentenced her, Parker said, reading from the Judge G. Patrick Murphy's comments at sentencing. "The fact of the matter is, nobody has ever been there for you when you needed it. Never," Murphy told her. "You never had anyone who stood up for you. All the government's ever done is just kick your behind," he continued. "When you were a child and you had been abused, the government wasn't there. When your stepfather abused you, the government wasn't there. When your stepbrother abused you, the government wasn't there. But, when you get a little bit of crack, the government's there," he said. "At every turn in the road we failed you. And we didn't come to you until it was time to kick your butt."

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Drug War, Drugs, mandatory minimums, FAMM, Barack Obama

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