Crack Cocaine Sentencing Rules Hit 20

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Friday is the 20th anniversary of a law that created mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine crimes. The rules mandated far harsher sentences for people caught with crack cocaine than for those caught with powdered cocaine. Many say the sentencing disparity is unfair.


Today marks the 20th anniversary of the law that created super tough penalties for crack cocaine crimes. As NPR's Libby Lewis reports it's not an event that anyone is really celebrating.

LIBBY LEWIS: Eric Sterling says the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was the fastest law he's ever seen Congress pass.

Mr. ERIC STERLING (Former Counsel, House Judiciary Committee): It was put together in three days in subcommittees. Reported out, the next day had a full committee, that's about August 13 is voted on - like the second or third day after Labor Day, and it's signed by the president a few weeks after that.

LEWIS: Sterling helped write the law. He was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. He remembers the days of 1986 when the words crack cocaine were strange and frightening. The anti-drug law he helped craft created mandatory minimum sentences that are much tougher for crimes involving crack cocaine than powder cocaine. A hundred times tougher in terms of weight. What does that mean? Mark Osler is a law professor and a federal sentencing expert.

Professor MARK OSLER (Law, Federal Sentencing Expert): Possessing 5 grams of crack is going to get you the same sentence as material support for al-Qaida.

LEWIS: It would take a hundred times that weight in powder cocaine to get the same sentence. Sterling now ruse his work on the anti-drug abuse law. He heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and he's constantly speaking out against the law. He's not alone. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has recommended reducing the differential between crack and powder cocaine since 1995.

It's found that 83 percent of the people in prison under the law for crack cocaine are African-Americans, even though many users of crack cocaine are white. And it's found that most of those imprisoned are street dealers or drug couriers, not kingpins.

The Justice Department declined to comment for this story. But a spokeswoman pointed us to what former Deputy U.S. Attorney Larry Thompson told the Sentencing Commission back in 2002. He said it would send the wrong message to lower the penalties for crack cocaine.

If you want to do anything, he said, raise the penalties for powder cocaine. There's been a reluctance in Congress to touch the law at all. But more voices are calling for change. Senator Jeff Sessions, the conservative Republican from Alabama, is one of them. He's introduced a bill that would reduce the differential between crack and powder cocaine from a hundred to one; to 20:1.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): And now we have had nearly 20 years of experience and I think, legitimately, based on my experience as a federal prosecutor, that the crack sentencing guidelines are too heavy. And there's - it's not necessary to have as long of sentences for some of these offenses as we now have. And it's appropriate if Congress is going to move in to this area, that it review what it's done and - and make adjustments as time goes by.

LEWIS: At the same time, at least one federal appeals court has weighed in on the crack/powder cocaine differential. Last month, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled that judges may consider arguments about the, quote, "inequity of the 100:1 differential when they're deciding a sentence."

The appeals court relied on the Supreme Court's Booker decision that ruled the Federal Sentencing Guidelines are advisory, not mandatory. The appeals court ruling means some offenders may now receive somewhat shorter sentences for crack cocaine crimes.

Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.

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