NAACP Calls for Passage of Legislation to End Racial Disparities in Cocaine Sentencing

The Issue:
As a result of federal law passed in 1986, there is a huge (100 to 1) disparity between the penalty for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  Specifically, a person must possess 500 grams of powder cocaine before they are subject to the same mandatory prison sentence (5 years) as an individual who is convicted of possessing just 5 grams of crack cocaine (despite the fact that pharmacologically, these two drugs are identical).  One of the effects of this legislation is that small-scale crack cocaine users are punished much more severely than powder cocaine users and their suppliers.

Everyone seems to agree that crack cocaine use is higher among Caucasians than any other group:  most authorities estimate that more than 66% of those who use crack cocaine are white.  Yet in 2006, 82% of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were African American.  When you add in Hispanics, the percentage climbs to above 96%.  Since enactment of this law, the 100 to 1 ratio has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the African American and Hispanic communities. The fact that this law carries a mandatory minimum jail sentence also means that people of color are being put in prisons at much higher rates than their Caucasian counterparts, and the judges have no discretion to mitigate the sentence for first-time or nonviolent offenders or in special circumstances.

Opposition to the crack cocaine sentencing disparity and mandatory minimum sentences has been voiced by people as diverse as former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and a host of civil rights leaders. Congress and the Administration, however, have not seen fit to correct this glaring injustice.  Senator Joseph Biden (DE) has introduced legislation (S. 1711) to correct this arbitrary and unfair distinction between powder and crack cocaine sentencing, as has Congressman Charles Rangel (NY) (H.R. 460) who has for years been our champion on this issue.