Today’s Drug Sentencing Policy Is a Civil Rights Injustice (Sen. Ben Cardin)

Our criminal justice system is broken. Earlier this week, during a hearing of the Judiciary Crime and Drugs Subcommittee entitled "Restoring Fairness to Federal Sentencing: Addressing the Crack-Powder Disparity,”  we heard from the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Judicial Conference of the United States calling for equalization of the crack – powder sentencing structure.

There is no excuse for breaking the law by using and/or selling illegal drugs.  But today we have a civil rights injustice in our drug sentencing policy between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  According to the Journal of American Medical Association, “cocaine in any form produces the same physiological and subjective effects.”  Yet under current law, it takes 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger the five- and 10-year mandatory minimum sentences.

Currently, African Americans constitute more than 80% of the people convicted of a federal crack cocaine offense.  Whites constitute 66% of individuals using crack cocaine, but only 8.8% of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws.  We must eliminate this gross disparity.

During this week’s Judiciary hearing, the Honorable Reggie B. Walton testified about incidents in which jurors knew the defendant was guilty, but would not convict because they knew the penalties were unfair and had a disproportionate affect on minorities.  Asa Hutchinson, a former Congressman from Arkansas, also testified at the hearing, that under the current law, a high-level drug trafficker carrying 400 grams of cocaine can receive a shorter sentence -- or none at all – compared to a low-level user.   There is something wrong with the current drug law that makes that possible.

The American drug epidemic is a serious problem that must be addressed, but our drug laws must be smart, fair and rational.  We are misdirecting limited federal resources on low-level individuals instead of targeting major traffickers.  We must be smart on crime. We must remove this disparity so that we can effectively stop drug traffickers and kingpins.