The year was 1986. Crack cocaine was a scary, mushrooming epidemic. Inner cities were being ravaged. Some of its overdose victims, such as Boston Celtics’ number one draft choice Len Bias, were high-profile. Authorities were implored to do something.
And Congress did. The result: sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine that were off the charts. To wit: trafficking in 5 grams of crack would mean a mandatory sentence of five years, but it would take 500 grams of powder to warrant an identical five-year term.
The 100-to-1 disparity, which has major racial implications, will now be pondered by the Supreme Court.
“When I first saw what Congress did, I thought it was a misprint,” recalls David Krahl, a criminology professor at the University of Tampa. “I thought it was 10-to-1. Trying to do something about the problem, Congress overreacted. It was almost legislative overreaching. And in the process, lower-level offenders and people of color were swept up. The law of unintended consequences.
“The assumption was that crack was inherently worse,” says Krahl. “Powder had a kind of glamour – that of a party drug. But the bio-chemical structures are identical. The physiological effects are the same. The difference is the route of administration. Crack is smoked; powder is snorted.”
But Krahl is confident that the days of the 100-to-1 disparity are numbered. Earlier this year the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended lowering the federal minimum sentence for crack. Moreover, there are five Congressional bills filed on the crack-powder disparity. Three would reduce the disparity to 20-to-1; two would even it a 1-to-1.
“There’s a lot of broad-based, bipartisan support for this kind of legislation,” adds Krahl. “I think what the Court will do is wait until one becomes law.”