Crack is Wack -- So's the Sentencing

I’ve written about illegal drugs here and there, and I've been inside a few prisons for those stories and others. And along the way I’ve met more than a few individuals serving inordinate amounts of time for piddly drug offenses -- specifically, crack cocaine offenses.

It’s hard to argue that the mandatory sentences that have been in place since the '80s for crack cocaine aren’t racist (basically, if you’re busted for dealing crack, your punishment will be 100 times worse than if you’re busted with powder cocaine) and stupid (low-level foot soldiers in the drug game deal crack; kingpins move powder). For some time there’s been momentum to change this, and if you’ve read the papers today you know that yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s OK for judges to stray from mandated guidelines when sentencing drug dealers. After the jump, then, some local perspective on what this will mean for law enforcement and the ill-fated drug war.

The ruling comes a month after the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce the disparity in prison sentences given for crack versus powder cocaine. And today the commission is scheduled to vote on whether that change should be applied retroactively, which could affect some 19,500 federal inmates, most of whom are black. (According to this Associated Pres story today: Eighty-six percent of the people in prison on crack offense are black.)

“The simplest of back stories here is that crack is a drug of the inner-city, disproportionately, and particularly crack dealing is a drug that is mostly minority offenders,” Doug Berman, who writes the influential Sentencing and Law Policy blog, told me in March 2006, while I was reporting a story on a crack-dealing outfit in Pleasant Grove. “It’s not quite as bad as saying, 'If you’re a black drug dealer, you get three times the sentence as if you’re a white dealer,' but functionally it gets relatively close to that.”

Berman told me that when the guidelines were first passed in the mid-'80s there was a mistaken belief that crack was inherently more dangerous and addictive than powder cocaine -- thus, the 100-to-1 sentencing guidelines. Subsequent scientific evidence, Berman said, has refuted this.

Today Berman’s got a bunch of good stuff on his blog on yesterday’s ruling, including a New York Times story that says the ruling may actually result in longer, not shorter sentences. And Mother Jones, on its MoJo blog, wrote yesterday that this promises to become a major campaign issue.

But what effect, if any, will the changes in sentencing guidelines have on the drug war? This morning I called a street-level Dallas cop, who busts people for crack almost every day, and Phil Jordan, the former head of the Dallas office of the Drug Enforcement Agency, to hear their takes. Here’s what they had to say:

“At my level it won’t make a difference, because people are still going to go to jail,” the cop told Unfair Park. “But I’ve always thought it was a bit unfair. The people I’ve got with crack are almost always on the lower end of the socio-economic strata, and the people with powder are usually a little more affluent.”

Phil Jordan tells Unfair Park: “I’ve always been against the sentencing guidelines because they’ve always favored the people with money. And from a law enforcement perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Cocaine is cocaine, just like heroin is heroin. I never agreed that you differentiate crack cocaine from powder cocaine. The powder cocaine are the godfathers of the drug trade, the people who are bringing in the cocaine by the bulk, and we’ve been giving higher sentences to the nickel-and-dimers who turn it into crack. Whoever made that decision was high on something.” --Jesse Hyde

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