In 1993, I wrote the first national story on discriminatory crack cocaine laws. Racial bias was lessened but not eliminated in 2010. This story remains accurate. — Dennis Cauchon, editor.   

May 26, 1993

Christopher Maske, a 22-year-old carpet installer, got a mandatory five-year sentence without parole last month for 5.8 grams of crack cocaine — the drug young black men are arrested for most often.

But if Maske had possessed 5.8 grams of powder cocaine — the form of cocaine whites get busted for most often – he’d qualify for probation.

“The law is racist,” charges Robert Tucker, Maske’s federal public defender.

“Crack cocaine and powder cocaine are essentially the same drug. What’s different is how it’s ingested and the race of the people who use it.

terrol spruell

Terrol Spruell, crack offender

Crack cocaine is punished far more severely than powder cocaine under federal law: one gram of crack counts as 100 grams of powder in sentencing rules. But this 100-to-1 ratio — set in 1986 amid growing concern about crack and associated violence — is under attack.

Civil rights leaders, drug experts, judges and defense lawyers say the law unfairly singles out the drug used by many young, poor blacks for the harshest punishment.

Nationwide, 91.5% of federal crack defendants are black. Every year, about 2,000 blacks (and 60 whites) are sentenced under the federal law. And first offenders — like Maske, a Washington, D.C., resident — are getting 5-, 10-, 20- and 30-year sentences.

Terrol Spruell, a senior at Virginia State University, was caught with 5 ounces of crack in a shopping mall parking lot in October 1989. He had never been arrested before.

The sentencing report said Spruell had sold 8 kilograms of crack in his drug-dealing career. He was sentenced to 30 years without parole. He is scheduled to be released at age 54 in the year 2015. If he’d had powder cocaine, he would have gotten a 10-year sentence and been released in 1997.

“I was immature. I made a mistake,” he says. “I deserve to be penalized but not for the rest of my life.”

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Click for sentencing data

Under the federal law, five grams of crack (the weight of two pennies) gets a mandatory minimum of five years without parole.

Fifty grams of crack gets 10 years without parole. For the same sentence, a person would need 100 times as much powder cocaine.

Some prosecutors defend the 100-to-1 ratio as an accurate reflection of the dangers of crack cocaine.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous to call the law racist,” says Terrence Farley, director of the National Drug Prosecution Center. “If you look at the profits, the addictiveness and the violence associated with crack, it’s irrational to say it shouldn’t be punished much more severely than powder cocaine.”

Adds John Walters, a Bush administration drug policy official: “Look, the mayhem associated with crack isn’t a coincidence. It’s the drug.”

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Click for racial data

The drug trade became much more violent in the inner city after crack emerged in the 1980s and competition among dealers became more intense.

But some medical experts say there’s nothing in crack cocaine to justify such a disparity at sentencing.

ronald k. siegel

Dr. Ronald Siegel

“The 100-to-1 ratio is arbitrary, capricious and scientifically and medically wrong,” says Dr. Ron Siegel, a UCLA professor who first documented the cocaine smoking trend in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1979. “It doesn’t reflect the reality of the molecule. It is not a different drug.”

In recent months, a growing chorus of voices has started to question the law:

  • Attorney General Janet Reno has ordered her staff to review whether the law is fair. “I’m very concerned about it,” she says. “We’re going to look at it closely.”
  •  The U.S. Sentencing Commission — which determines sentences but cannot change mandatory minimums set by Congress — is preparing a report for Congress on the crack law. “I can’t say it’s racist, but when you look at the statistics it’s very troubling,” says Commissioner David Mazzone, a federal judge.
  •  Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says he’ll hold hearings on the issue this summer and bring it up with the president at their next meeting.

“The law discriminates on its face and in practice,” he says. “Any law that distinguishes between crack cocaine and powder cocaine is designed to discriminate.”

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Attorney General Janet Reno

Federal public defenders have filed dozens of challenges to the law. None has succeeded.

“From our standpoint, the case law is horrendous,” says Suzanne Hashimi, a federal defender in Atlanta. “Unless we have someone who says, ‘we’re doing it because you’re black and I hate blacks,’ we can’t meet our burden of proof.”

Even while rejecting the defendant’s legal arguments, many judges have expressed sympathy with their complaints. Last month, federal Judge Thomas Hogan ended a 16-page decision upholding the law by saying: “It is hoped that Congress and the sentencing commission will address the troubling statistics and propose an appropriate solution.”

Defense lawyers have had one success at the state level. In 1991, the Minnesota Supreme Court threw out that state’s crack law as racially discriminatory. Eight states punish crack more severely than powder cocaine.

But the federal crack law punishes black defendants in other ways, too: Only crack has mandatory minimum sentences for mere possession. For all other drugs, possession with intent to sell is required for a mandatory sentence to be imposed.

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Karl Fort, 44, a crack lifer

Maske’s five-year sentence is for simple possession of 5.8 grams. He was acquitted of dealing drugs.

Local police ship crack defendants to federal court, even when federal authorities were not involved in the investigation. Reason: to get a longer sentence.

The practice — known as “jurisdiction shopping” — is legal but controversial. Jurisdiction shopping produces a huge variance in prison sentences for the same crime – literally, probation in state court vs. lifer without parole in federal court for some defendants.

joseph Lowery

Joseph Lowery, now 93

“I never thought I’d see the day when state courts are more protective of our rights than federal courts,” says Lowery.

Most crack defendants are denied bond. Reason: Sentence length is important in determining how high bond will be set or if bond will be allowed at all.

Barbara Piggee, a Los Angeles travel agent, flew to Oklahoma after her only son was arrested for crack. She went to the bond hearing with $15,000 in borrowed money and two return plane tickets.

But her son, Roderick, a first offender, was denied bond. The tearful mother flew home next to an empty seat. “Since I got off that plane without my child, I don’t think my husband has forgiven me,” she says.

Her son was sentenced to 17 years for a kilogram of crack.

“As a parent, to whatever extent my son was involved in drugs, that’s too much and he should be punished,” Piggee says. “But I don’t feel he should be put away like an animal and left to rot.”

Piggee has helped form Families Against Discriminatory Crack Laws. “These kids are not the Mafia. They are poor, uneducated people trying to survive. You can’t just throw away a whole race.”

Two other stories supported this article. Click to read them.

 Reagan-appointed judge laments “absolutely outrageous” crack sentence

Powder cocaine vs. crack cocaine vs. coca leaf: What’s the difference?

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