Federal judge decries disparate impact of cocaine sentencing laws on minorities

[JURIST] US District Judge Reggie B. Walton [official profile] denounced [PDF transcript] the disparity in federal sentencing requirements for possession of crack cocaine and cocaine powder in testimony Tuesday before the US Sentencing Commission [official website]. Citing the 100-1 differential (5 grams of crack carry a mandatory 5 year sentence while it takes 500 grams of cocaine to get that same sentence), Walton stated that "the current sentencing structure is not fair, nor does it have the appearance of fairness" and it is eroding minority groups' faith in the equity of the legal system. Walton acknowledged that as Associate Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy [official website] in the 1980s, he had approved stricter sentencing standards for crack-related crimes. However, the disparate impact of these standards on minorities has led him to change his position. He called for "a re-evaluation of the policy," stating:

The failure to do so has left many to believe that there is an indifference to the real and perceived unfairness of the policy because of the population is disproportionately impacted by it. As a nation that prides itself on treating all who appear before our courts of law with fairness and equality, the time has come to address a vexing problem for those of us who are entrusted to administer the system and those who suffer the consequences of the policy.
Although the two drugs [NIDA backgrounder] are nearly identical, crack cocaine is more dominant in lower income urban areas. On three prior occasions, the Sentencing Commission has recommended that Congress adjust the sentencing disparity. AP has more.

 

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