Crack, Powdered Cocaine Sentencing Guidelines Addressed in Bill

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

( - Civil rights officials have complained that disparities in prosecuting drug cases involving crack and powdered cocaine discriminate against minorities. Now, a Republican congressman wants to level that playing field.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) has introduced legislation he believes would eliminate disparities between powder cocaine and crack cocaine within federal law.

According to Bartlett, the bill would put more powder cocaine distributors behind bars and help keep crack cocaine off the streets of America.

As an example of the sentencing disparity, Bartlett cited what's known as the "100 to 1 ratio," under which it takes five grams of crack to trigger a mandatory five-year federal prison term, but 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same penalty.

Some civil rights and legal groups, like the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), think African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities have been discriminated against by the differences in sentencing for the two drugs.

"They (minorities) get penalized more because they tend to deal more in crack cocaine. The difference in the penalties end up meaning more minorities in prisons and the powdered cocaine, which is more likely to be used by white people, results in less penalties," said Dan Dodson, a spokesman for the NACDL.

However, Bartlett thinks his bill would give federal law enforcement officers and prosecutors "more ammunition and leverage" to keep cocaine dealers off the streets, no matter what race they are and no matter what drug they sell.

"Cocaine is cocaine and it should be punished equally whatever form it is found in," said Bartlett. "My bill would eliminate the current disparity in federal law and make our streets and neighborhoods safer by targeting federal resources at getting dealers off the street and behind bars."

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, had no reaction to Bartlett's legislation, according to a spokesman. Similarly, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was silent on the proposal.

However, the NACDL expressed qualms about Bartlett's legislation. "He probably just wants to raise the penalties for powdered cocaine. And that's just the wrong approach to the problem," said Dodson.

"The better way to take care of the disparity would be lower the penalties for crack cocaine or raise the thresholds for the sentencing," said Dodson. Bartlett's bill doesn't specify penalties for either crack cocaine or the powdered version.

The United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that works within the Justice Department, recently released data showing that some distributors and "higher level dealers" prefer to sell cocaine exclusively in its powder form.

The commission found that these drug dealers refuse to handle crack because of the lower threshold quantity levels that trigger lengthy federal minimum prison penalties.

Street level cocaine dealers tend to receive their cocaine in powder form. Street dealers convert powder cocaine into crack cocaine by heating it with baking soda and water in a microwave open, according to the commission.

The commission concluded that as a result of such a conversion, low level crack vendors and users are arrested and jailed for longer terms, not the upper-level powder cocaine distributors and dealers.

E-mail a news tip to Jim Burns.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.