In a hearing chaired by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) today, the Justice Department for the first time endorsed the elimination of the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer announced the Obama Administration's position at the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs hearing on the effectiveness of the current sentencing structure, which has become known as the 100-to-1 ratio.
"Our shocking incarceration rates and the racial disparities in our criminal justice system are human rights issues that we must address," said Durbin. "More than 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States, the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Nothing has contributed more to the disparity in incarceration rates between African Americans and Caucasians than the crack-powder disparity. We must completely eliminate the crack-powder disparity and adopt a one-to-one ratio."
Under current law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine (roughly the weight of two sugar cubes) triggers a mandatory five-year prison sentence. It takes nearly 500 grams (approximately 1 pound) of powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence. Our drug sentencing policy is the single greatest cause of the record levels of incarceration in our country. One in every thirty-one Americans is in prison, on parole, or on probation, including one in eleven African-Americans. And over 50% of federal inmates are imprisoned for drug crimes.
Additionally, the dramatically higher penalties for crack have disproportionately affected the African American community: 81 percent of those convicted for crack offenses in 2007 were African American, although only about 25% of crack cocaine users are African American. These racial disparities can serve to undermine trust in our criminal justice system and have a corrosive effect on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities. As the U.S. Sentencing Commission has said, even "perceived improper racial disparity fosters disrespect for and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system."
The crack trade and the trade in cocaine powder are frequently associated with violence. Yet, crack-related violence has decreased significantly since the 1980's and today 94 percent of crack cocaine cases don't involve violence. Cases that involve violence are subject to increased sentences, including a mandatory minimum for use of a weapon in connection with a drug trafficking offense.
The following witnesses also testified at today's hearing: Reggie B. Walton of the Judicial Conference of the United States; Ricardo H. Hinojosa, Acting Chair of the United States Sentencing Commission; John F. Timoney, Chief of the Miami Police Department; Former Drug Enforcement Agency Director Asa Hutchinson; and Cedric Parker of Alton, IL.