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The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Henderson Slams Disparate Sentencing

Feature Story by Celeste Berry - 3/14/2002

In a decisive message to the United States Commission on Racial Disparities in Federal Drug Sentencing, Wade Henderson, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, declared that the disparate mandatory drug sentencing laws for powder and crack cocaine are unfairly targeted toward members of the minority community and need to be repealed.

He told the commission that, “Much of the racial discrepancy at the federal level is the result of mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses,” and citied statistics that demonstrated this racial gap. “In the Commission’s own most recent statistic on the subject,” Henderson began, “93.7 % of those convicted for federal crack distribution were black or Hispanic, while only 5.6% were white.” This disparity, he maintained, had an overreaching impact on minority communities. Crack cocaine has extremely harsh mandatory sentencing laws, including a five year federal prison sentence for anyone convicted of selling five grams or more, and a ten year sentence for those convicted of selling fifty.

Henderson compared the crack cocaine sentencing to that of powder cocaine, and found that in order for a person to receive the same mandatory five and ten year sentences for selling powder, a defendant must be convicted of selling 500 and 5000 grams of this type of cocaine. This is where the racial disparity is most evident. Historically, unlike crack cocaine, where the major offenders are minorities, whites are the main consumers powder cocaine. According to a 1992 statistic, almost one third (32%) of those convicted of federal powder cocaine distribution offenses were white, while 39% were Hispanic, and 27% were black.

Over the past decade, the ramifications of this disparate sentencing have been evident, Henderson testified. Today, almost one in three black males aged 20-29 is under some form of penal supervision- either in prison, jail, probation, or parole, and for every one black male who graduates from college, 100 black males are arrested.

Henderson is not the only person concerned by these statistics. The Commission holds hearings like this one each year to gauge how both the public and law enforcement agencies feel about US sentencing laws. This year, in addition to Henderson, testimony came from a director at the National Council of La Raza, a member of the American Bar Association, and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. All came to voice their opposition to mandatory sentencing laws.

Ronald Weich from the ABA stated that the drug sentences were “more severe than necessary to achieve the societal purposes for which they are authorized.” He pointed to the “unintended consequences” of the laws including the disproportionate amount of minorities affected by them, and the large amount of non-violent criminals in jail.

In addition, Charles Kamasaki of La Raza testified that although Latinos make up only 12.5% of the population, they account for more than 50 percent of the arrested drug offenders. He targets the Justice Department of the United States as the reason for this discrepancy, stating that racial injustice is prevalent in all aspects of the judicial system, from racial profiling to incompetent lawyers for the poor to the disparate impact mandatory drug sentencing.

Kamasaki, Weich, and Henderson all proposed solutions to this inequality. However, none of them include raising the sentencing for powder cocaine to meet the levels of crack. “This would only exacerbate overall racial disparity,” Henderson stated, “For the racial makeup of powder cocaine has shifted since 1992. . . By 2000, the percentage of whites using powder cocaine had dropped to 18 percent, while the percentage of black and Latino powder cocaine defendants has risen to 81 percent.” To lower the threshold quantities for powder cocaine would have the effect of putting more minorities in the criminal supervision system, Henderson reiterated.

Instead, all three testifiers advocated lowering the sentencing for crack to eliminate the differences between crack cocaine and all other drugs, so that no segment of the population is unfairly targeted. In addition, the three supported treatment programs for drug users over strict incarceration time, and a ban on the practice of racial profiling. Each of these, they hoped, would help ease the disparity in the criminal justice system.

“Such criminal justice reforms,” Henderson maintained, “are a civil rights challenge that can no longer be ignored.”

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