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Consideration of Bias Claim in Crack Cocaine Sentencing Declined by Supreme Court


May-June 1997

On April 14, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Duane Colbert Edwards who contended that federal sentencing laws discriminate against blacks by punishing people caught with crack cocaine more severely than those caught with the powder cocaine. Crack offenders get the same mandatory prison sentence as persons convicted of selling 100 times greater amount of cocaine powder (Edwards v. U.S., US SupCt, No. 96-1492, 61CrL3015; Joan Biskupic, "Court Rejects Bias Claim in Crack Cocaine Sentencing," Washington Post, April 15, 1997, p. A1; David G. Savage, "High Court Rejects Racial Challenge to Crack Laws," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), April 15, 1997, p. A8; Tony Mauro, "Court won't review cocaine sentencing," USA Today, April 15, 1997, p. 3A).

By declining to hear the case, the justices left intact Edwards' 10-year sentence for selling crack in June 1995. Edwards, a decorated Persian Gulf War veteran with no criminal record, was involved in the sale of more than 50 grams of crack, and received the mandatory minimum 10-year sentence. In a cocaine case, he would have had to have been involved in selling 5,000 grams (5 kilos) or more of cocaine powder to draw the same sentence.

Edwards appealed his sentence, arguing that federal statutes mandating longer sentences for crack offenders have an impermissible discriminatory effect, because almost all crack defendants in federal court are black. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, from October 1994 to September 1995, 88% of crack cocaine defendants were black, 7% were Hispanic and 5% were white. During the same period, 41% of powder cocaine defendants were black, 41% were Hispanic and 18% were white. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected Edwards' challenge (CA DC, 98 F.3d 1364 (1996)), saying Congress has "not acted with a discriminatory purpose in setting greater penalties for cocaine base [crack] crimes than for powder cocaine offenses." The appeals court said that because the law applies to all defendants, it does not single out blacks or any other class of people for harsher sentences. Most other Federal appeals courts have also consistently rejected claims that the crack-powder disparity shows an unconstitutional bias, and the Supreme Court has declined to take up other appeals.

In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Edwards was represented by defense counsel Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and counsel John C. Floyd III. "There is a perception among African Americans that there is no more unequal treatment by the criminal justice system than in the crack versus powder cocaine racially biased federal sentencing provisions," wrote Floyd. Edwards' attorneys urged the Court to look at whether the disparity unconstitutionally targets blacks, violates due process and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Congress says the sentencing disparity is justified because crack is allegedly associated with more violent crimes. In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that the stiff crack penalties have "a disproportionate effect" on black defendants and called for crack and powder cocaine penalties to be racially neutral, but Congress and the Clinton Administration rejected its recommendation to equalize the punishments.