Friday, November 2, 2007

Action Alert: Crack cocaine / powder cocaine sentencing disparity addressed

DATE: November 2, 2007
TO: Concerned Parties
FROM: Hilary O. Shelton, Director, Washington Bureau

NAACP APPLAUDS STEPS TAKEN BY US SENTENCING COMMISSION TO BEGIN TO ADDRESS CRACK COCAINE / POWDER COCAINE SENTENCING DISPARITIES
SENTENCING COMMISSION RESPONSE TO NAACP TESTIMONY BEGINS TO ADDRESS RACIAL DISPARITY CONCERNS; NAACP URGES DECISION TO BE APPLIED RETROACTIVELY

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THE ISSUE
Due to actions taken by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) last May, as of November 1, 2007, the mandatory minimum penalties for crack cocaine conviction have been lowered, which may impact as many as 3,500 federal defendants a year. On average, this change will reduce the penalty on defendants' sentences by 15 months. The NAACP has long supported a reduction in crack cocaine penalties, with NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton forcefully testifying before the Sentencing Commission last November in support of a reduction of crack cocaine penalties.

As a result of federal law passed in 1986, there is 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 who is convicted of possessing just 5 grams of crack cocaine (despite the fact that pharmacologically, these two drugs are identical). One of the effects of the 1986 law is that small-scale crack cocaine users are punished much more severely than powder cocaine users and their suppliers.

Everyone seems to agree that crack cocaine use is higher among Caucasians than any other group: most authorities estimate that more than 66% of those who use crack cocaine are white. Yet in 2006, 82% of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were African American. When you add in Hispanics, the percentage climbs to above 96%. Since 1986 the 100 to 1 ratio has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the African American and Hispanic communities.

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 that will help approximately 19,500 people currently in prison for a federal crack cocaine conviction. NAACP Washington Bureau Director Shelton is preparing to testify before the Sentencing Commission in mid-November in favor of applying the decision retroactively.

In the meantime, the NAACP will continue to advocate for a change in the underlying 100-1 sentencing disparity.

THANK YOU FOR YOUR ATTENTION TO THIS IMPORTANT MATTER!!!
If you have any questions, call Hilary Shelton at the Washington Bureau at (202) 463-2940.



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