Sentencing Disparities: Fact of Fiction?

The conversation about criminal justice continues with Richard Samp, chief legal counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation, who says the inequality isn't necessarily racial.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

For the other side of the story, we turn to Richard Samp. He is chief legal counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation.

Richard, thanks for coming on.

Mr. RICHARD SAMP (Chief Counsel, Washington Legal Foundation): My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: So there's a lot of studies about this issue. What have you read? What do they have in common?

Mr. SAMP: Many of these studies focus on racial disparity in the number of people in prison. And, frankly, the racial issue is a red herring. I think most of your prior discussion focused on the possibility that some first-time drug offenders are getting excessive mandatory minimum sentences. I think that's a legitimate issue in some cases. But that has nothing to do with race. We have sentencing guidelines that apply across the board.

And every study that I have read suggests that racial disparities have nothing to do with the race of the defendant in terms of the sentence. They have everything to do with socioeconomic differences within our nation. For example, you asked earlier about where the epicenter of the disparity is. Well, I can tell you where it is. It's here on Washington, D.C.

The ratio of black incarceration to white incarceration in D.C. is 20-to-1. And that is the highest in the nation. I don't think anybody legitimately thinks, given the prevalence of black political leaders here in D.C., black judges sitting on the local court, that people are being discriminated against on the basis of their race when it comes to sentencing.

CHIDEYA: But Richard, let me pose things to you in a very specific context. I - years ago, I mean, almost 10 years ago at this point, covered the meth epidemic in the Midwest, which now has become a national epidemic. And that epidemic was for a while centered in white communities. The sentencing is not nearly as harsh on the federal level as it is for, say, crack cocaine. Doesn't that put a burden on the legal system?

Mr. SAMP: I think we ought to constantly reexamine sentencing and make sure that white crimes are treated alike. And if there are drugs that are less dangerous than others, that they - sentencing should reflect that.

Right now, the U.S. Supreme Court is taking a look at a very important issue, having to do with the differences between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, and whether or not we should be treating the former much more harshly than the latter. Those are legitimate issues. I don't think it's legitimate, however, to say that we ought to just simply not incarcerate people because it so happens that it creates racial disparities in every single state.

CHIDEYA: I want to ask you about violent versus non-violent offenders. Are there any sentencing differences when it comes to that?

Mr. SAMP: Certainly, there are but I think that one of the unfortunate things of the war on drugs is that every politician wants to be tough on drugs. And so therefore, there are always increasing mandatory minimum sentences. And while I do believe it's important to have guidelines for ranges of sentences that are relatively mandatory that unfortunately politics often times gets caught up in the issue and mandatory minimum sentences tend to be more severe in - sometimes in non-violent crimes than in violent crimes. And frankly, it ought to be the other way around.

CHIDEYA: So what would you like to see happen as America looks at both the drug issue and the crime issue and how they interact with the prison system? What do you think would be a number of things to look at to improve justice?

Mr. SAMP: Well, I think the first thing we had to do is get race out of the equation. I think it is a red herring. I think it enflames people. And I don't think it's particularly relevant to the issue that we are discussing.

Secondly, I think we ought to have, constantly, examinations of sentencing guidelines to make sure that the punishment does fit the crime. But in general, we ought to be insisting on some sort of mandatory guidelines because if you don't have that, then you simply increase suspicions that people are being arbitrarily sentenced and therefore, race does become a factor.

CHIDEYA: What hope would you offer to someone like Karen who has children in jail, she doesn't think they did the crime, she doesn't think they deserve the time?

Mr. SAMP: I don't really know what to say to Karen in particular. My heart goes out to her but I really have no awareness of the facts of the case. Obviously, there was a judge and jury somewhere who felt that her children were guilty and it must have been guilt of something much more severe than mere drug possession because, otherwise, they would not have gotten sentences like that.

But I do think that we have, by far, the finest criminal justice system in the world that does provide for repeated levels of appeals so that if there are innocent people in prison, very often, eventually that comes to light and they get out of prison.

CHIDEYA: Well, Richard, we want to thank you so much. And Richard Samp is the chief legal counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation. He was at NPR's Washington headquarters.

And just ahead, fitness at any age with our health pro, Dr. Ro, and the art of selling faith.

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