The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 58.0°F | Fog/Mist

Supreme Court Rejects Claims That Crack Laws Target Blacks

By Joan Biskupic
The Washington Post

The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal that contended that federal sentencing laws discriminate against blacks by punishing people caught with crack cocaine more severely than those caught with the drug in powder form.

Monday's action, while not unexpected and taken in a one-sentence order, nonetheless calls attention to one of the most fractious issues of the criminal justice system - one that has caused prison unrest, troubled lower court judges, and created a dilemma for lawmakers and officials charged with ensuring fairness in prison time.

While most federal sentencing is based on the weight of drugs involved in a crime, first-time crack dealers get the same time behind bars as people who sell 100 times the amount of cocaine powder.

Such disparity necessarily invokes concerns of class and race because crack is associated with the inner-city crime of minorities, while powder is known for its use among affluent whites.

The justices left intact a D.C. man's 10-year sentence arising from a drug sting and rebuffed arguments, made by prominent defense counsel Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr., that the disparity in powder and crack sentences perpetuates unfairness against blacks.

"There is a perception among African-Americans that there is no more unequal treatment by the criminal justice system than in the crack v. powder cocaine racially biased federal sentencing provisions," wrote local legal counsel John C. Floyd III, joined by Cochran and Ogletree.

They urged the high court to look at whether the differential unconstitutionally targets blacks, violates due process, and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

How can Congress justify a 100-to-1 ratio in punishment of offenders "for essentially the same crime," they asked, contending that the law targets young, poor, African-American urban males.

But the Justice Department and leaders in Congress, which in 1995 rejected an effort to equalize crack and powder punishments, insist the crimes are different and that crack is associated with more violent trafficking.