Correction to This Article
The article about the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders wrongly attributed to Norman L. Reimer a comment about the impact the disparity has had on race and policing. Reimer said he made no racial distinctions in his remarks.

Adjusted Penalties for Crack May Aid Ex-Ballplayer's Case

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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Willie Mays Aikens is a part of baseball lore. As a member of the 1980 Kansas City Royals, he became the only man to hit more than one home run in two games of the same World Series.

But 27 years after his feat, Aikens languishes in a federal prison in Jessup, Ga., brought low by cocaine addiction and a federal law that mandated long prison sentences for crack cocaine offenses.

From a face on a baseball card, Aikens is now a poster child for what some jurists and civil rights activists say is the absurdity of the difference between the way federal law treats people convicted of crack cocaine offenses and those found guilty of crimes involving powder cocaine.

Aikens received more than 15 years for possession of 64 grams of crack -- about the weight of a large Snickers bar. To receive an equivalent sentence, he would have had to possess nearly 6 1/2 kilos -- more than 14 pounds -- of powder cocaine.

"You can supply a whole neighborhood with 6 1/2 kilos," Aikens said by telephone from prison, where he is in the 13th year of his sentence.

Activists, lawyers and many federal judges say cases such as Aikens's demonstrate the inequity of cocaine sentencing laws and validate the U.S. Sentencing Commission's recent decision to ease prison time guidelines for crack offenders. The new guidelines will apply retroactively to about 19,500 inmates.

Within hours of the decision, Aikens said he was on the telephone with his lawyers, asking them to request a sentence reduction. They calculated that the new guidelines could shave nearly 2 1/2 years off his sentence.

"The disparity, as far as I'm concerned, is totally wrong," said Aikens, a nonviolent offender. "This took me away from my family. My girls were 4 and 5 years old when I was sentenced. Now they're 18 and 19."

The Bush administration fought the new guidelines, saying inmate petitions would overburden the federal court system, and hardened criminals, some violent, might go free.

Thousands of cases will have to be litigated again in the courts where they were heard, and "those cases are going to detract from the many cases that are already pending in overworked, understaffed U.S. attorney's offices," said Steve Cook, vice president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

Commission members have said it is highly unlikely that judges would free inmates with violent pasts.

The sentencing disparity is more than two decades old. It was established after the cocaine-related death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias prompted Congress to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. It allowed sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine, seen at the time as the more dangerous form of the drug, to be 100 times more severe than for crimes involving powder cocaine.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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