Politics on crack

The United States Sentencing Commission last week grappled with federal drug laws that punish crack-cocaine offenders with sentences grossly disproportionate to the sentences imposed on powder-cocaine users. The “100-to-1 disparity” means that an offense involving five grams of crack triggers a sentence of five years, while it takes 100 grams of powder to get the same prison time. Statistics show that the law results in small-time crack dealers, who are mostly black and from inner cities, receiving draconian sentences, while powder users and high-level dealers, who are mostly white, get off with lesser sentences.

“Powder cocaine is the drug of choice among yuppies, dot-comers and movie stars in Beverly Hills, whereas crack cocaine is the drug of choice in the ghetto,” Sacramento federal district court Judge William Shubb pointed out in a ruling last year. (See “Drug justice,” SN&R Feature Story, June 29.)

As a congressional staffer, Eric Sterling helped write the original 1986 law that decreed stiffer penalties for crack offenders, but he since has changed sides in the drug war. Now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and a national authority on drug-policy reform, Sterling writes, speaks and testifies on a variety of drug-policy issues. He attended the sentencing-commission hearings and is cautiously optimistic that the federal agency will recommend changes to the law. “Other than the testimony of [law-enforcement groups], there seemed to be unanimity that the sentencing disparity was wrong,” he told SN&R.

But legislative politics could get in the way of any reforms that the commission recommends. “If it’s not a bipartisan effort to resolve this, my sense is that the Democratic leadership will try to pull the plug,” Sterling said. “They don’t want to be painted as soft on crime.”