NAACP applauds steps taken by US Sentencing Commission to begin addressing crack / Powder cocaine sentencing disparities

The NAACP is pleased that incremental steps are being implemented to correct one of the most egregious disparities in the nation’s drug enforcement policies. 

For more than 20 years mandatory sentencing guidelines and differences in crack and powder cocaine penalties in America’s courts have disproportionately impacted African American and other minority defendants.   

But now, due to actions taken by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) last May that took effect Nov. 1, the mandatory minimum penalties for crack cocaine conviction have been lowered, which may impact as many as 3,500 federal defendants a year. 

“The NAACP has long supported a reduction in crack cocaine penalties and a repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for such offenses,” said NAACP Interim President & CEO Dennis Courtland Hayes. “On average, this change will reduce the penalty on defendants’ sentences by 15 months. While this change is not all that we have been advocating for, it is an important first step.”

The result of a 1986 federal law has been a huge, 100 to 1 disparity between the penalty for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Specifically, a person has to possess 500 grams of powder cocaine before they are subject to the same mandatory prison sentence (5 years) as an individual convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine, despite the fact that the pharmacologically of the two illegal narcotics are identical. 

Another effect of the 1986 law is that small-scale crack cocaine users are punished much more severely than powder cocaine users and their suppliers. Despite the fact that cocaine use is roughly equal among the different populations in the U.S., the vast majority of offenders tried, convicted and sentenced under federal crack cocaine mandatory minimum sentences are African Americans. 

While the USSC decision does not impact the 100-to-1 crack / powder cocaine sentencing disparity, it does ensure that people convicted of crack cocaine possession under federal law are not sentenced even more harshly. The USSC in now in the process of determining if their action should be retroactive, a move the NAACP fully supports.

“Making the provision retroactive would help approximately 19,500 people currently in prison for a federal crack cocaine conviction, approximately 86 percent of whom are African American,” NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton said in testimony before the commission earlier this week. “It only makes sense that a person sentenced between Oct. 1, 1991 and June 30, 2007 should not have to spend more time in prison than those sentenced after November 1, 2007, simply because they had the misfortune of being sentenced at the wrong time.” 

Failure to apply the sentencing measure retroactively—which was done in the past for LSD, marijuana and oxycodone that benefited other racial groups more so than African Americans – would further perpetuate and perhaps intensify the injustice around this issue, Shelton added.

Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization.  Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors

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