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Supreme Court Decision Endorses Fair Crack Cocaine

By Joan Biskupic
The Washington Post

In a decision that endorsed strong prosecutorial discretion, the Supreme Court Monday made it more difficult for blacks to claim they have been unfairly targeted for federal drug charges.

By an 8-1 vote, the court ruled that blacks who allege that they have been singled out for tough treatment must first show that whites in similar circumstances have not been prosecuted.

The ruling is significant against the backdrop of a highly charged national debate over tough prison terms for crack cocaine that fall disproportionately on blacks. Federal sentencing law, which ties prison terms to drug quantities, treats one gram of crack as the equivalent of 100 grams of powder cocaine, which is used more by whites. Defense attorneys and civil rights groups have accused federal prosecutors in a string of cases nationwide of targeting blacks for punishment under the harsh crack cocaine laws.

"We think the required threshold - a credible showing of different treatment of similarly situated persons - adequately balances the government's interest in vigorous prosecution and the defendant's interest in avoiding selective prosecution," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court.

Justice John Paul Stevens was the only dissenter, stressing that "the possibility that political or racial animosity may infect a decision to institute criminal proceedings cannot be ignored."

"The severity of the penalty (for crack) heightens both the danger of arbitrary enforcement and the need for careful scrutiny of any colorable claim of discriminatory enforcement," Stevens wrote, arguing that lower courts should have more leeway in deciding whether a threshold showing of selective prosecution has been made.

Five Los Angeles defendants claimed they were singled out in 1992 for federal prosecution on charges of operating a "crack house" and that prosecutors were steering black suspects into federal court and white defendants into state court.

The local federal public defender representing the men found that of the 24 crack cocaine cases her office closed out in 1991, all involved blacks.