Bias in Drug Sentencing Remains

Willie Mays Aikens was not a drug kingpin, but he received a kingpin-sized sentence for selling crack cocaine. A former Kansas City Royal and 1980 World Series record holder, Aikens received a 21-year sentence for selling 63 grams of crack. At the end of his baseball career he had become addicted to powder cocaine but had no previous record for drug distribution when an undercover officer asked him to sell the drugs that led to his lengthy incarceration in 1994. This month Aikens received a sentence reduction after 14 years in prison — authorized due to the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s determination that penalties for crack cocaine offenses are unnecessarily harsh. He returned to his major league hometown, Kansas City, to enter a halfway house, and hopes to soon reunite with his daughters, who live in Mexico with their mother.

Aikens’s release coincides this month with the 22-year anniversary of the death of Len Bias, another prominent sports figure who played basketball at the University of Maryland. His legendary cocaine overdose on the night he was drafted by the Boston Celtics launched the punitive legislative reaction by Congress that would later subject Aikens to a stiff mandatory sentence for selling crack cocaine.

The federal law that Bias’s death inspired, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, established a five-year mandatory sentence for offenses involving as little as five grams of crack cocaine, the weight of two sugar packets. Offenses for powder cocaine, a similar yet more expensive substance, only receive that penalty for 100 times the amount of the drug. The harm caused by the excessive crack cocaine sentences prescribed under the law has been decried by judges, civil rights groups, faith-based organizations and many others.

At the time Len Bias died it was assumed that his killer was crack cocaine. When the truth later emerged that his drug of choice was in fact powder cocaine the legislative damage had already been done. Policymakers’ rush to make ill-considered reforms to the laws during the 1980s did not end the war on drugs or stop crack cocaine addiction. Indeed, the harsh penalties are responsible for breaking up many families and wasting the lives of many youths who did not require a decade in prison to learn that their crime was wrong. The penalties also created an assumption among communities of color that equal justice does not apply to them.

Each year about 5,000 people are convicted of a federal crack cocaine offense, the majority of whom are low-level operators — typically they sell drugs on street corners or act as look-outs or couriers. But by focusing on low-level cases, federal prosecutors divert resources from pursuing the "kingpin" operators who are responsible for importing and trafficking drugs. And large-scale incarceration of low-level sellers only results in their being replaced on the streets by other young men and women seeking to make quick money in the drug trade.

The enormous racial disparity in who goes to prison also surrounds the crack cocaine sentencing debate. Over 80 percent of the men and women serving time for federal crack cocaine offenses are African American, despite the fact that two-thirds of crack users are white or Hispanic. The strategy of the war on drugs has largely targeted black and minority communities, so Congress’s mandatory penalties have a disproportionate impact on people of color. The Sentencing Commission’s own findings conclude that reducing the mandatory sentences for crack cocaine would lessen racial disparity in federal prisons and improve public perceptions of fairness within the criminal justice system.

Momentum has emerged over the last year to address the hastily passed law. At the end of last year, a U.S. Supreme Court decision acknowledged the legitimacy of the crack cocaine sentencing controversy and the U.S. Sentencing Commission amended the sentencing guidelines governing crack cocaine offenses. As a result of the Commission’s action, 7,000 prisoners have received sentence reductions since March 2008. Some members of Congress understand the futility of the crack cocaine sentencing law and reform legislation has been introduced by both Democrats and Republicans. But despite the fact that hearings on the issue were held in February, 22 years later justice is elusive. Let us not allow another anniversary to pass without Congress correcting its mistake.

Kara Gotsch is director of advocacy at The Sentencing Project. She can be reached at (202) 628-0871 (in Washington, DC).