Justice Department officials this morning endorsed for the first time proposed legislation that would eliminate vast sentencing disparities for possession of powdered versus rock cocaine, an inequality that civil rights groups say has disproportionately affected poor and minority defendants.
Newly appointed Criminal Division chief Lanny A. Breuer told a Senate Judiciary Committee panel this morning that the Obama administration would support bills to equalize punishment for offenders accused of possessing the drug in either form, fulfilling one of the president's campaign pledges.
Breuer explicitly called on Congress to act this term to "completely eliminate" the sentencing disparity.
The issue has received attention from both political parties, but never before have top law enforcement officials backed legislative reforms, according to drug control analysts.
"Now is the time for us to reexamine federal cocaine sentencing policy, from the perspective of both fundamental fairness and safety," Breuer told the Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs. He said the sentencing issues would be among those considered by a Justice Department panel that is examining a broad array of criminal justice topics related to charging, sentencing and prisoner treatment.
The announcement is part of a broader White House effort to move away from failed strategies to combat the war on drugs and to shift more money into treatment, counseling and job training. That outlook has been endorsed by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and former Seattle police chief R. Gil Kerlikowske, who awaits Senate confirmation as Obama's new drug czar.
Conflict over the cocaine possession laws, which date to 1986, has simmered for years. Even the U.S. Sentencing Commission has pushed Congress for more than a decade to address sentencing disparities.
At the heart of the debate are vastly unequal penalties for carrying cocaine in powder form as opposed to rock form, commonly known as crack. The inequality has come to be known as the "100 to 1" ratio, in which possession of five grams of crack, the weight of two small sugar cubes, triggers a mandatory five-year prison term, while a person carrying 500 grams of powder cocaine would receive the same sentence.
The penalties have had far-reaching consequences, according to police chiefs, federal judges and drug control operatives.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) noted this morning that more than half of federal inmates are locked up for drug-related crimes, including high ratios of African American offenders. In 2007, Durbin said, 82 percent of people convicted on crack possession charges were black, and only 9 percent were white.
"These racial disparities profoundly undermine trust in our criminal justice system and have a deeply corrosive effect on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities," Durbin said.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, representing the Judicial Conference, called the drug sentencing disparity "one of the most important issues confronting the criminal justice system today."
Walton, who is black, told the subcommittee: "No one can appreciate the agony of having to enforce a law that one believes to be fundamentally unfair to individuals who look like me."
In practice, according to the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the sentencing disparity has a discriminatory impact on African Americans who serve sentences on average nearly two years longer than people sentenced under powder cocaine laws.
One client of FAMM is Eugenia Jennings, the mother of three children, who was convicted of trading small amounts of crack cocaine for designer clothes on two different occasions. She was charged as a career offender and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison in 2001.
Cedric Parker, Jennings's brother, planned to tell the Senate panel this morning that had his sister been caught with powder cocaine, she would be preparing to return home because that offense carried far less prison time. Jennings is not scheduled for release until 2019.
"This hearing gives new hope to thousands . . . who have loved ones serving harsh sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel at FAMM.
The origins of the tough sentences reside in the hothouse environment of the mid-1980s, when many urban communities suffered outbreaks of violence and drug use stemming from the introduction of high-quality cocaine into local drug markets. At the time, authorities believed that crack cocaine possessed unusually addictive powers, an idea that has since been dispelled, said Asa Hutchinson, former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"When significant numbers of African Americans on the street question the fairness of our criminal justice system, then it becomes more difficult for the officer on the street to do his or her duty under the law," Hutchinson said in his prepared remarks for the subcommittee today.
John F. Timoney, the police chief in Miami, this morning called the current state of the drug law an "unmitigated disaster" and said he was "pleading with the Congress to right a wrong."