The Crack / Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity and a Creative Solution...

Sentencing Law and Policy links to the submitted testimony of several witnesses at next week’s congressional hearing on the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. Berman also points us to the statement of Chuck Canterbury, National President of the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest law enforcement labor organization in the United States, who argues that he knows how to fix the problem.

I read Canterbury’s entire statement, and urge you to do so as well (I can’t reprint the whole thing here, of course, but welcome readers to make sure that my use of ellipses – “…” – aren’t an attempt by me to distort what he is saying).

Most of it is fairly shocking on its face, but I can’t resist the urge to comment:

Measures like the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988 put stiffer penalties into place for those who would bring the poison of drugs and violence into our neighborhoods and communities. In the experience of the FOP, tougher penalties work. They worked in the 1980s and 1990s and were a very significant factor in the ability of law enforcement to counter the “crack” explosion…

OK, so part of his thesis is the tired refrain, “What we’ve been doing in the 80’s and 90’s has been working so well…” Let’s see if he can manage to stick to that story.

Mandatory minimum sentences… mean longer sentences for the worst offenders.

Um, in the sense that mandatory minimum sentences mean longer sentences for all offenders, I suppose he is technically correct. Of course, those longer minimum mandatory sentences come down on the “least of the offenders” as well, so his statement, while arguably true, is misleading at best.

The Commission’s findings in the 1997 report also stated that crack cocaine is… particularly accessible to the most vulnerable members of our society… As a result, Federal sentencing policy must reflect the greater dangers associated with crack and impose correspondingly greater punishments.

If this isn’t shocking on its face, please reread this last quote again. Outloud. Then read it to a friend and ask them their reaction to it.

The Fraternal Order of Police would support increasing the penalties for offenses involving powder cocaine through a reduction in the quantity of powder necessary to trigger the 5- and 10-year mandatory minimum sentences, thereby decreasing the gap between the two similar offenses and addressing the concerns of those who question the current ratio without depriving law enforcement with the tools they need to control the possession, use, and sale of powder cocaine.

The 5-year mandatory minimum sentence can be triggered by 5 grams of crack cocaine. How much is 5 grams of something? 5 Sweet-and-Low packets worth of cocaine is 5 grams. So his solution to the disparity problem…increase the penalties for powder, rather than decreasing them for crack! So the disparity is a problem, one best solved by even more prison building.

This year alone, more than 5.5 million Americans will use cocaine, and 872,000 will try it for the first time. Similarly, 1.4 million Americans will use crack cocaine and 230,000 will try it for the first time. These are very disturbing numbers. And despite indications that cocaine production has stabilized since 2002, U.S. law enforcement authorities seized 196 metric tons of cocaine in 2005—a five year high.

But wait a minute… didn’t you start off by telling us that what we’ve been doing for thirty years plus has been such a rousing success? Now you’re telling us that cocaine use has either stabilized or increased. So when you want to brag about the great job you’re doing, then “things are getting better”. But when it comes time for the scare tactics and the pleas for more funding, then “things are staying the same or getting worse”.

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