TODAY'S QUESTION: Should Missouri eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine?

Friday, March 25, 2011 | 1:00 p.m. CDT; updated 9:59 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 28, 2011

Until last August, the federal government had a 100-1 ratio in sentencing people for possession of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. That meant someone caught with 1 gram of crack cocaine was given the same sentence as someone caught with 100 grams of powder cocaine.

Then, President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing the federal disparity to a ratio of 18-to-1. The Sentencing Project, a national advocacy group for criminal justice reform, believes the disparity should be removed completely.

According to an article from The Associated Press, the group said the disparity is unfair to black drug users, who are more likely to be charged with crack cocaine offenses and end up with longer prison terms than cocaine users of other races.

Missouri is one of 13 states that currently punishes crack cocaine offenders more harshly than offenders sentenced for powder cocaine. Missouri's disparity is a 75-1 ratio; New Hampshire is the only other state with a sentencing disparity higher than the federal government's.

Missouri Rep. Chris Carter, D-St. Louis, agrees with The Sentencing Project's findings that the sentencing disparity has a racial component and treats black offenders unfairly, according to the AP's article. The disparity also adds to overcrowding in Missouri's prisons.

"I want to reduce the disparity and begin to empty the prison system of low-level and nonviolent offenders and still keep public safety," Carter said in a recent news conference.

Carter plans to submit legislation to end Missouri's disparity when the General Assembly returns from its spring break.

Should Missouri remove its sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine?

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dean aye March 25, 2011 | 1:34 p.m.

So the Feds think 18-1 is okay? Why is there any difference at all? Looks like prejudice to me... maybe there is something I don't understand.

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox March 25, 2011 | 2:06 p.m.

Dean, no I think you get it, it's discrimination. And while I think race is interjected into too many topics it doesn't belong in, this isn't one of them. This is obviously about racism. Crack was tied to the projects by the media, of course now we know that the federal government were using black street gangs to distribute crack in order to fund illegal clandestine wars.

(Report Comment)
Tommy Piatchek Jr. March 25, 2011 | 7:50 p.m.

Dean, Eric and others,

I agree that race might have originally had an effect on the laws passed punishing crack cocaine users.

My question to you is, when do you think Missouri will remove the disparity?

It is one of 13 states to still have the difference in ratio.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking March 26, 2011 | 5:45 a.m.

100-to-1 is a very misleading statistic.

To come up with a fair measure of sentencing disparity, one would have to compare similar amounts, and control for things like prior criminal record and concurrent charges like violence and weapons violations. None of that seems to have been done here.

Because of the way it's made, crack violations tend to be small amounts, while larger seizures are predominantly powder cocaine. This skews sentencing statistics also.

If one looks at the sentence that someone gets for a gram of crack and a gram of powder, I imagine the disparity would largely disappear.


(Report Comment)
Dave Overfelt March 26, 2011 | 9:22 a.m.

Mark, you can control for whatever you want and you will still find that the criminal justice system unfairly punishes people of color and the poor. If you want to learn more about the criminal justice system, I think the best book on the subject is Reiman's "The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison". If you want to learn more about racial disparity in sentencing, The Sentencing Project has some great resources here :

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle March 26, 2011 | 9:55 a.m.

Criminalization is still a terrible way to deal with drug use problems. It costs an enormous amount of money, creates a huge lucrative unregulated black market, and injects government sponsored violence into our society.

The money in the black market corrupts cops and politicians, making the very people we expect to combat drug problems complicit in their perpetuation. Criminalization doesn't work, it never has worked, it never will work. It just damages and distorts our society.

So yeah, we need to eliminate sentencing disparities: between crack cocaine, powder cocaine, and speeding in a car.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking March 27, 2011 | 8:07 a.m.

Dave Overfelt wrote:

"you will still find that the criminal justice system unfairly punishes people of color and the poor."

Except nothing on the Sentencing Project site answers my question - is there a sentencing disparity for possession of a gram of crack and a gram of powder? I doubt it's significant if there is.

I would support making the penalties for crack and powder the same in those cases where there is a legal difference, even though crack is, physiologically, a more dangerous drug. Smoking cocaine delivers a high concentration of the drup to the left ventricle of the heart, sometimes stopping it, where snorted cocaine is absorbed more slowly and evenly.

However, where is disagree is making this a racial issue. Poor people (most of them minorities) are overrepresented in our jails because they commit more crimes per capita. Wealthier people also may be able to afford better attorneys. Making it a racial issue confuses the true causes of these "disparities"

I'd agree with Derrick, also, and would like to see a lot of these drugs completely decriminalized. That would take a lot of the coincident violent crime out of it, and free up jail space for the truly dangerous offenders.


(Report Comment)
Dave Overfelt March 31, 2011 | 11:40 a.m.

Sorry for the slow reply, maybe these links will help you out:

(Report Comment)
Dave Overfelt March 31, 2011 | 11:55 a.m.

Also, if you really want to learn about how our prison system is organized to punish the poor and people of color, please please please read "The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison". The book clearly lays out the data you are asking for in excruciating detail. There is really no speculation about the matter. It is fact that our criminal justice system is not fair in any way.

(Report Comment)

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