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Court Upholds Disparate Cocaine Sentencing Scheme


January 1995

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has joined other circuits in ruling that the sentencing disparity due to the 100 to 1 cocaine to crack weight ratio does not violate the Fifth Amendment equal protection component (U.S. v. Johnson et al., 40 F.3d 436, D.C.Cir., Nov. 22, 1994; 56 CrL 1232, Dec. 7, 1994).

The defendants argued that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established mandatory minimum sentences that carry harsher sentences for crack cocaine than cocaine powder, was racist in intent and effect.

The court ruled that while the scheme may have a disparate impact on blacks, that fact alone may suggest but does not prove an invidious discriminatory purpose and does not establish constitutional violations. "It is not enough that a law impacts members of different races differently in effect -- it must have been passed at least in part with that purpose," the court ruled. "Congress' undeniable haste in passing the 1986 Act is more naturally attributed to a very real public concern over the generic elements of the crack phenomenon -- an expanding market, the proliferation of violence among dealers and in the larger community, and the untold suffering and degradation of addicts." These forces are enough to "readily and logically" provide a "race-neutral explanation" for the provisions in the 1986 Act.

In 1992, 91.5 percent of defendants convicted on federal crack cocaine charges were black.

[Eric E. Sterling, President of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, was counsel to the House Subcommittee on Crime that developed these sentences. He has testified as a witness in Federal court, and has provided assistance to counsel litigating these issues.

There is a Committee Against the Discriminatory "Crack" Law chaired by Nkechi Taifa, Esq. For more information contact her at 122 Maryland Ave., NE, Washington, DC 20002, 202-675-2324.]