Pubdate: Tue, 9 Feb 1999
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA)
Copyright: 1999 Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Author:  Marc Mauer
Note: Marc Mauer is assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a
Washington-based non-profit organization that promotes sentencing reform and
conducts research on criminal justice issues. This article is distributed by
The American Prospect Syndicate.


In the mid-1980s, the media spotlight on crack cocaine led Congress to pass
mandatory sentencing laws requiring an automatic five-year prison term for
anyone convicted in federal court of possessing as little as 5 grams of crack.

The penalties apply even to first-time offenders. Despite widespread
evidence that these laws are costly, ineffective and unfair, members of
Congress and the administration have steadfastly resisted calls for change.

As the new Congress begins, another 300 crack offenders are being
incarcerated under these laws every month, adding another $30 million in
prison costs to the taxpayers' tab and buying little safety in return.

Crack cocaine is the only drug subject to these extreme federal penalties.
A person convicted in federal court of possessing 5 grams of cocaine in
powder form is likely to receive a probation sentence. For powder cocaine,
the five-year mandatory prison penalty doesn't kick in until there's been a
sale of 500 grams, or 100 times the quantity that gets a crack cocaine
offender sent to prison for the same period.

Thus, under federal law, a dealer convicted of trafficking 400 grams of
powder, worth approximately $40,000, would receive a shorter sentence than
a user he supplied with crack valued at $500. Even the U.S. Sentencing
Commission has concluded that the small difference between these two forms
of the same drug does not justify such a difference in punishment.

Two other important concerns emerge from these sentencing policies:

First, whether intended or not, the penalties have fallen
disproportionately on African Americans. In 1997, 84 percent of federal
crack offenders were black, compared to just 30 percent of powder cocaine
offenders. Thus, arbitrarily severe sentences for low-level crack offenders
have resulted in a massive racial disparity in sentencing.

Second, beyond any concern for fairness, there is little fiscal sense in
incarcerating low-level drug offenders for five years. Sending more drug
offenders to prison for longer terms does not reliably reduce either drug
abuse or drug-related crime. For example, national cocaine consumption
increased from 190 metric tons in 1980 to 284 metric tons in 1990, despite
a 650 percent rise in the number of drug offenders incarcerated during that
period. And once drug "kingpins" and high-level dealers are sent to prison,
as they almost always have been when they're convicted, locking up lower-
and lower-level offenders produces ever diminishing returns for public safety.

This was demonstrated in a recent study conducted by the Rand Corporation,
which concluded that $1 million invested in drug treatment would reduce 15
times more serious crime than the same amount spent on expanding prison

For all these reasons, the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 1995 recommended
to Congress that the disparity between sentencing for crack and powder
cocaine be eliminated. The commission pointed out that other criteria exist
for determining sentence lengths, which would better ensure that violent,
dangerous dealers receive longer sentences. Congress overwhelmingly
rejected the recommendation.

In 1997, the Sentencing Commission tried again, calling for a more modest
revision in the mandatory sentencing laws, but this proposal also met stiff
opposition. Caught in the political rhetoric of "getting tough on crime,"
most members of Congress refuse to even consider easing crack sentencing,
no matter how sensible such a move would be. Instead, they toyed last year
with various proposals that would reduce disparities by increasing the
number of powder cocaine offenders sentenced to prison.

But that approach actually would exacerbate the problems of the current
law. It would send even larger numbers of low-level drug offenders to
prison, and since police target inner cities for drug law enforcement, most
of them would be minorities -- if not African Americans, then Hispanics.
The result would be a federal drug policy that is even more expensive than
the present policy with just as little sustained impact on levels of drug
use or violence.

Crack cocaine has certainly caused harm to many individuals and
communities. Harsh mandatory sentences, though, produce fewer benefits at
greater cost than would be achieved by a national drug policy focused on
prevention and treatment. Hanging tough on crack sentencing may make for
good politics, but it does not result in good crime control.

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