High Court Reviews Sentences for Crack vs. Powder Cocaine

High Court Reviews Sentences for Crack vs. Powder Cocaine

Published February 11, 2008

Posted Oct. 3, 2007 – Russell Simmons and many in the hip-hop community have argued against the disparity in sentences for crack cocaine vs. those for powder cocaine. 

When a federal judge sentenced a crack dealer to 15 years in prison – instead of the mandatory minimum 19 to 22 years – he stirred a hornet’s nest over the role race plays in who goes to prison and for how long.

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The judge, Raymond A. Jackson, pictured above, calling the sentencing guidelines “ridiculous,” sentenced Derrick Kimbrough, a Black Gulf War vet from Norfolk, Va., to what he believed a fairer punishment for selling both crack and powder, and possessing a firearm.

This case is being paired with one from Iowa in which a judge imposed a more lenient penalty for Brian Gall, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute ecstasy, commonly called the date rape drug. In Gall’s case, the judge felt that probation was sufficient, ignoring mandatory prison time. The Bush administration says the sentences should have been appealed, while civil rights leaders – who have long argued about the racial ambiguities of mandatory minimum sentences – are advocating for the defendants.

Black leaders, including African-American members of Congress, say that laws stipulating harsher sentences for crack cocaine over powdered cocaine are racially biased because crack is more commonplace in the Black community.

Cocaine powder, on the other hand, is used more often by Whites and affluent people. In fact, as the U.S. Sentencing Commission points out, more than four-fifths of crack cocaine offenders in federal courts last year were Black, while about one-fourth of those convicted of powder cocaine crimes last year were Black.

Even though Kimbrough had much more powder than crack, it was crack that drew the lengthy sentence.

Judges are not free to shorten sentences "based on a disagreement with the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses," the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found. The disparity has its roots in a 20-year-old law established to counter violent crimes committed to fund crack habits. Inherent in the law is the infamous “100-to-1 disparity,” whereas trafficking in 5 grams of crack cocaine draws a five-year prison sentence, while it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to land you in prison for that long.

Should the sentences be evened out, or is it necessary to have harsher penalties for crack?  Click "Discuss Now," to the right, to post your comment.

Written by BET-Staff

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