Crack-coke sentence disparity persists

By Bill Draper and Denise Lavoie
Sunday, September 12, 2010

KANSAS CITY, MO. - Police found such a small amount of crack cocaine in James V. Taylor's car that investigators described it as unweighable. It was enough for a 15-year prison sentence in Missouri, where the courts make an enormous distinction between crack and powder cocaine.

Missouri and several other states followed the federal government's lead in creating such disparities decades ago, but now federal law has changed, and prisoner advocates say it's time for the states to do the same. Most drug cases are prosecuted at the state level.

Defense lawyers and other critics of the tougher crack sentences say they subject mostly blacks to long prison terms while those caught with powder cocaine - mostly whites - get far more lenient treatment. Some prosecutors defend the disparities, saying that because crack is smoked, it gets into the bloodstream faster than snorted cocaine, produces a more intense high and is generally considered more addictive.

The federal government imposed tougher sentences for crack in 1986, when use of the drug was rampant and 22-year-old University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication. Early news reports said Bias had used crack, but after the federal law was passed, a teammate of Bias's testified that Bias had snorted powder cocaine the night he died.

Under the sentencing rules, a person convicted of crack cocaine possession got the same mandatory federal prison term as someone with 100 times as much powder cocaine. President Obama signed a law last month narrowing the federal disparity to 18-to-1.

Fourteen states also passed laws treating crack cases more severely than those involving powder cocaine; 10 states currently have such laws on the books. Missouri's is by far the toughest: Someone with six grams or more of crack faces the same prison term - at least 10 years - as someone with 75 times more powder cocaine.

'Trace evidence'

"It was too extreme," Taylor said of his case, which began during a February 2005 traffic stop when a Farmington police officer found a crack pipe in his car.

Taylor, 46, of Park Hills, Mo., was convicted twice in the case. The first conviction was overturned because it was based, in part, on a second crack pipe and a half-gram of crack found in his wife's purse. But Taylor was convicted again in 2007 based solely on the residue on his crack pipe. He also had assorted previous felony convictions for theft and credit card fraud.

"They found the crack pipe, washed it out and found trace evidence, and gave me 15 years," said Taylor, who has since been paroled and now works as a hotel maintenance worker. "If someone had a drug test and tested positive, that's trace evidence. That's no more than what I had. They should be locked up too."

Taylor, who is black, said blacks are more likely to use crack than whites, whose addiction of choice in Missouri is methamphetamine.

The only states with crack-cocaine disparities greater than the one in the revised federal law are Missouri and New Hampshire, where traffickers face a maximum of 30 years in prison for five grams or more of crack or 28 times as much powder cocaine. Other states that have a sentencing disparity are Arizona, California, Maine, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Virginia.

Unlike Missouri, New Hampshire does not have mandatory minimum sentences, except in the cases of drug enterprise leaders or dealers selling within 1,000 feet of a school.

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