KANSAS CITY, Mo. — More than a dozen states, including Maine, should eliminate the disparities they maintain in sentencing people charged with crack and powder cocaine crimes, gaps that persist despite changes to federal law last year, a national group that advocates for criminal justice reform said Thursday.
The Sentencing Project said in a report that treating the two types of the same drug differently is not only a fairness issue but a monetary one.
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, the Washington, D.C.-based group said. It also leads to long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders that cost cash-strapped states millions of dollars in prison expenses that could be saved if the disparities were removed.
“Fiscal pressure to tighten state corrections budgets, along with mounting evidence documenting the unfair and unwarranted structure of these sentencing laws, suggests that lawmakers should re-examine the sentencing differential between crack and powder cocaine,” the group said. “High rates of incarceration are expensive to maintain and sentencing changes … can effectively conserve resources without adverse effects on public safety.”
Until last August, the federal government had a 100-to-1 ratio in sentencing people for possession of the two cocaine types. That meant someone caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine was sentenced the same as someone caught with 500 grams of powder. The Fair Sentencing Act signed by President Barack Obama reduced the federal ratio to 18-to-1.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said that’s a good start, but the goal is still to have the disparity removed altogether.
“There’s a fairly broad range of opinion over a number of years about whether penalties at the federal level should be equalized,” Mauer said during a telephone news conference Thursday. “In that regard, the 18-to-1 ratio they ended up with was a compromise. It was a significant change.” But his group believes “equalization of penalties is the direction things should go.”
Thirteen states have laws under which people are sentenced more harshly for crack crimes than ones involving powder cocaine. Two of those — Missouri and New Hampshire — have ratios above that of the federal government.
According to the report by The Sentencing Project, Maine’s aggravated trafficking offenses involving 112 grams or more of powder or 32 grams or more of cocaine base subject defendants to a four-year mandatory minimum term. The disparity, a 3.5-to-1 ratio, has been in place since 1987, according to the report.
Missouri Rep. Chris Carter, a St. Louis Democrat, said he plans to submit legislation to remove the state’s 75-to-1 ratio as soon as the General Assembly comes back from break.
“The prison system in Missouri is overcrowded and enduring tough budget times,” Carter said during the news conference. “I want to reduce the disparity and begin to empty the prison system of low-level and nonviolent offenders and still keep public safety.”
He said the disparities treat black drug offenders unfairly, noting the crack problem among blacks “grows out of joblessness, hopelessness and poor education.”
New Hampshire’s ratio is 28-to-1. The other states that treat the two types of cocaine differently for sentencing purposes are Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, California, Maine, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Vermont and Virginia.
Prison data breaking down the number of people doing time for crack compared with powder offenses was not available.
The Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.