Crack-Cocaine Sentences Prompt Debate

The U.S. Sentencing Commission will hold a Tuesday hearing on Capitol Hill to discuss revamping tough policies for crack-cocaine offenses. Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, discusses the hearing with Farai Chideya.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is holding hearings with Congress on revamping tough policies for crack-cocaine offenses. Federal prison time for possessing or selling cracks far exceeds those for powder cocaine. And it's a debate that's going on since the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

But these days, a bipartisan push to ease crack sentences is bringing added momentum. Will it make a difference? Marc Mauer is at the forefront of this issue. He's executive director of the Sentencing Project, and joins us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

So, let's take on the first big question. We've seen support on both sides of the fence to ease these tough sentencing guidelines when it comes to crack-cocaine offenses. Now, most notably Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama has probably broken ranks with a lot of his colleagues in the Republican Party. So tell us what kind of bipartisan attention this issue is drawing.

Mr. MARC MAUER (Executive Director, The Sentencing Project): It's been very intriguing in recent years. You know, we've traditionally seen a good deal of leadership on this issue from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other Democrats, in particular, Congressman Rangel from New York, Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia, who now chairs the Judiciary Crime Subcommittee.

But in recent years, very influential, leading Republicans have come onboard as well, most notably as you mentioned, Senator Sessions from Alabama, as well as Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. They jointly, had cosponsored a bill back in 2001 to reform the crack-cocaine policies. And Senator Sessions has introduced a bill last year, as well, to enact some type of reform also.

So it's really the first time, since the laws were adopted 20 years ago, that we're seeing what I think is fairly significant bipartisan interest in addressing the issue.

CHIDEYA: Can you tell me what their motivations are? I mean, some people look at the sentences and may say, well, it's just patently unfairly on a legal level. Some people say it's a racial disparity issue. Some people even say it's a moral issue. Do you have any sense where the opposition, not just from Republicans, but also from Democrats, is coming from?

Mr. MAUER: Well, I think those factors you mentioned are clearly part of the argument and they resonate with many people. But I think in addition to that, it's become quite clear that these laws are not very effective as drug policy. When we talk about a law that requires a judge to sentence a person to a mandatory five years in prison for possessing five grams of crack - that's a weight of two sugar packets - we're not looking at high-level drug dealers here.

Data from the United States Sentencing Commission tells us that two-thirds of the people prosecuted for crack-cocaine offenses are the low-level players in the drug trade. So we're talking about spending enormous resources. Five years in federal prison costs well over $100,000 to incarcerate one low-level offender.

So just purely on the merits of whether this is a good strategy for dealing drug abuse, drug-related violence, it's not a very effective way to go about it. These kinds of low-level cases would be much better handled, either in state courts or through some kind of diversion to treatment for cases where that's appropriate.

CHIDEYA: Why, specifically, has the impact to the crack-cocaine provisions been troubling to, perhaps not only politicians, but individual people? And is there, I would ask, a ground swell of individuals? Let me just give you a quick story. I met a woman who had a son who'd been involved as a drug user. And she was very much in favor of tough drug laws. She was an African-American mom, probably in her late 30s or early 40s, with a teenage son. And she was just like, these laws are good.

Mr. MAUER: Sure, many people think there's a real problem with crack, and of course, there is, as serious with many other drugs. They've devastated many individuals, they've harmed communities and all that. You know, the problem is, I think we've developed a very narrow approach through the mechanisms of the war on drugs and how we approach these problems.

Nobody wants a drug dealer on their street corner, whether you live in a low-income neighborhood or a very richly neighborhood. Nobody wants that happening. The question, though, is how do we go about dealing with that problem? Well, we have a broad range of ways that we could address problems of substance abuse. In communities that are well-off, with significant resources, parents who have a kid who has a drug problem don't call up the police and say would you please arrest my son or daughter, and give them one of those mandatory drug terms. Instead, they call up their friends who are social workers and they say what's the best treatment program I can get my kid into. And they try that, and if it doesn't work, they try another and another.

When it comes to low-income communities, we don't have those same kinds of resources. And so, as a society over the last 20 years, we've invested enormous sums into police prosecutors and prisons, as a way of dealing with the problem.

So yes, we need to say to that mother who's got a kid or got a neighbor, who's got a drug problem. Yes, we care about that. We want to help you deal with that, but the solutions that we offer that the resource we'd provide should not be only more police, more prisons, but a broad range of things. That involve prevention, treatment and dealing with neighborhood problems that contribute to drug abuse in the first place.

CHIDEYA: There's a whole Stop Snitching movement in the black community, very controversial, where some people see it as disloyal to speak to the police at all. And other people see it as a duty. What do you do about the way that people are funneled through the system, not just in terms of what the laws are, but also what peoples' expectations are, once they might get into a spot where they're caught using or doing drugs?

Mr. MAUER: Well, one of the terrible problems that the crack-cocaine laws have brought to us, along with other policies has that in many ways they've almost promoted or encouraged disrespect for the law. They de-legitimized law enforcement. You know, if we expect law enforcement to do a good job in promoting public safety and protecting us, law enforcement can only do that if it has the cooperation of the community. Police officers need information. They need help from people. They need witnesses in court. When we have laws that are perceived by people as fundamentally unfair or racist or unjust, then that promotes disrespect and distrust between the community and law enforcement, just the same as racial profiling has done the same as well.

It seems to me, we want law enforcement that protects people, but that does it in a very fair and reasonable way. And too many of the laws we have on the books and the way they're enforced instead drive divisions between people, in particularly, between law enforcement and the community. And that does a disservice to everyone.

CHIDEYA: Well, Marc, thanks for a provocative discussion.

Mr. MAUER: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: Marc Mauer is the executive director of the Sentencing Project. He'll join other advocates on Capitol Hill tomorrow for hearing on crack-cocaine policies.

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