Pubdate: Sun, 23 Mar 2014
Source: Al Jazeera America (US)
Copyright: 2014 Al Jazeera America
Author: Evan Hill


In 1986, lawmakers wrote new mandatory crack cocaine penalties in a
few short days, using the advice of a perjurer. March 23, 2014 12:00AM
ET by Evan Hill  & Alia Malek  Vials of crack
cocaine Members of Congress said they crafted mandatory minimum crack
sentences to take down high-level traffickers, but the amounts they
targeted swept up tens of thousands of low-level street dealers.New
York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Shortly after sunrise on June 19, 1986, inside a University of
Maryland dorm room, college basketball sensation Len Bias collapsed in
a seizure.

The 22-year-old had a promising future ahead of him. He had been
picked second in the National Basketball Association draft by the
Boston Celtics, his dream team, two days earlier. After a whirlwind
celebration in Boston, he had returned to campus, partied late, and
ended the night with friends around a dorm-suite table dusted with
cocaine. At around 6:30 a.m., a heart attack felled the 6-foot-8,
210-pound All-American.

"Len would have been a star," Red Auerbach, the president and general
manager of the Celtics, said. "He had a little Michael Jordan in him,
not quite as acrobatic as Michael but a better shooter. And he had a
little Dr. J. in him, too."

Bias' legacy, however, would have little to do with jump shots and a
lot to do with mandatory minimum prison sentences.

His death came amid a rising national panic over the spread of
cocaine. More than 1,000 articles about crack - a smokable, easily
packaged form of the drug - appeared in the national media that year,
including five cover stories in Time and Newsweek. Three days before
Bias died, Newsweek had called crack the biggest news story since the
Vietnam War or Watergate. In September, Time called crack the "issue
of the year."

A few weeks after Bias' death rocked Washington, D.C., lawmakers
returned to their home districts for the July 4 holiday. Congress was
facing midterm elections that November, and the 12 new Republicans
senatores lifted into office by President Ronald Reagan's 1980
landslide would not have him at the top of the ticket.

Thomas "Tip" O'Neill Jr., the Democratic speaker of the House of
Representatives - and a Boston native - called on his party to seize
the political moment and draft a major crime bill by the August
recess. The result would be the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a
landmark event in the war on drugs, drafted in haste to meet O'Neill's

The act revived mandatory minimum drug penalties, which had first been
broadly imposed as part of the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 in the
belief they would be an effective deterrent. The minimums had been
repealed in 1970, after Congress determined that increased sentences
had failed to do the job.

Yet 14 years later, national frustration with crime and growing
criticism of rehabilitation-focused criminal justice models led to the
Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which created the federal Sentencing
Commission and directed it to write uniform - and, at the time,
mandatory - sentencing guidelines for judges. It was this prevailing
mood that held sway over Congress in the summer of 1986. Very
candidly, none of us has had an adequate opportunity to study this
enormous package.

Charles Mathias

Republican senator from Maryland, in 1986

After lawmakers returned from the July 4 holiday, the Capitol became a
drug war bonanza, and in the last week before recess, the Republican
minority in the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime
persuaded two Democrats to enhance existing drug penalties.

"The short story is that they were written in enormous haste," said
Eric Sterling, who served as counsel to the Judiciary Committee in the
1980s. "There were no hearings on these sentences. There was no
outside opinion."

Lawmakers wanted to target mid- and high-level traffickers, and they
told Sterling, who often led the drafting of new drug legislation, to
set the drug quantities for each tier.

Sterling, who had often worked with the Drug Enforcement
Administration, suggested they use the DEA's definition of a class 1
trafficker - someone who manufactured or distributed at least 4
kilograms of pure cocaine each month, or hundreds of thousands of
doses. But at a markup session, Rep. Romano Mazzoli, a Democrat from
Kentucky, said such an enormous amount would not apply to dealers in
his district. Others agreed. They told Sterling to come back the next
morning with a different proposal.

Sterling called Jehru St. Valentine Brown, a narcotics detective with
the capital's Metropolitan Police Department, who had been detailed to
the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. The two
spoke for about half an hour, Sterling said, or maybe more. Brown
recommended his own quantities, substantially smaller than the DEA's.
The next day, Sterling took new amounts to the representatives.

On Aug. 12, the subcommittee approved mandatory minimum sentences of
five to 20 years for trafficking in 20 grams of crack and 10 to 30
years for trafficking in 100 grams. In its report on the bill, the
committee urged the government to focus on "major traffickers =C3=82=C2=85=
are responsible for creating and delivering very large quantities of

On Sept. 8, when Congress returned from recess, the Anti-Drug Abuse
Act was introduced in the House. It would undergo more than 100 rushed

"Very candidly, none of us has had an adequate opportunity to study
this enormous package," Charles Mathias, a Republican senator from
Maryland, said during remarks on the floor.

By the time the bill became law, on Oct. 27, the 50-to-1 disparity
between the amount of powder cocaine and the amount of crack needed to
trigger mandatory minimum sentences had doubled.

The speed of Congress' work left only a slim legislative history about
why this had happened. Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican majority leader
from Kansas, introduced a bill on behalf of the Reagan administration
that would have instituted only a 20-to-1 disparity. But other
lawmakers, encouraged by since-debunked reports in the media and from
law enforcement about the special danger of crack, insisted on tough

"Such treatment is absolutely essential because of the especially
lethal characteristics of this form of cocaine," said Lawton Chiles, a
Democratic senator from Florida who argued for the 100-to-1 disparity.
"[Crack] can be bought for the price of a cassette tape and make
people into slaves."

By the early 1990s, the mandatory minimums had taken full effect.
Sentences for crack crimes were, on average, three years longer than
sentences for powder cocaine. From 1992 to 1996, the number of people
convicted of a crime involving powder cocaine declined by 35 percent,
while the number of crack convictions climbed by 89 percent. The vast
majority of crack convicts, more than 80 percent almost every year,
were black.

Brown, meanwhile, would be exposed as a perjurer by the end of the
decade. A powerful witness in narcotics cases, he testified thousands
of times that he had a degree in pharmacology from Howard University
and was a board-certified pharmacist. After a criminal defense lawyer
made a routine check, both claims were exposed as lies. In 2000, he
pleaded guilty to eight counts of perjury, and dozens of offenders
filed motions for retrial.

In 1995, the Sentencing Commission urged Congress to change the
100-to-1 powder-to-crack disparity. The commission cited the troubling
"anomaly" that a high-level powder cocaine seller could be sentenced
more leniently than someone who bought a portion of the seller's
cocaine and cooked it into crack. Commissioners submitted an amendment
to Congress to equalize sentences for crack and powder cocaine, but
lawmakers passed legislation to decline the amendment, and President
Bill Clinton signed it.

In the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, Congress rolled back the disparity to
an 18-to-1 ratio, and thousands of inmates applied retroactively to
have their sentences reduced. Three years later, Attorney General Eric
Holder directed federal prosecutors to relax their charging decisions
to avoid triggering mandatory minimums and other harsh sentencing
enhancements. This year, Congress is poised to vote on the Smarter
Sentencing Act, which would make the Fair Sentencing Act fully
retroactive and slash mandatory minimum sentences in half.

But for thousands of people, the damage was already

"I think the devastation and the ripple effect is untold and will last
for generations and generations," said Vincent Southerland, senior
counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Because
what it did was [to] remove generations of individuals from
communities that really needed and required strength and assistance
and all hands on deck. And I think the drug wars are going to be one
of those things that we look back on 30, 40 years from now and have
very, very sobering regrets about what it did to this country."