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War on Crack Targets Minorities Over Whites : Cocaine: Records show federal officials almost solely prosecute nonwhites. U.S. attorney denies race is a factor.

May 21, 1995|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite evidence that large numbers of whites use and sell crack cocaine, federal law enforcement in Southern California has waged its war against crack almost exclusively in minority neighborhoods, exposing black and Latino offenders to the toughest drug penalties in the nation.

Not a single white, records show, has been convicted of a crack cocaine offense in federal courts serving Los Angeles and six Southland counties since Congress enacted stiff mandatory sentences for crack dealers in 1986.

Only a few whites have been federally prosecuted in the region stretching from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border, while hundreds of minorities have been locked up in federal prison.

Virtually all white crack offenders have been prosecuted in state court, where sentences are far less. The difference can be up to eight years for the same offense.

In Los Angeles County, hundreds of white crack traffickers were convicted in state court between 1988 and 1994, according to data obtained by The Times. No whites were prosecuted federally during this period, though one was indicted a few months ago and is awaiting trial.

Los Angeles U.S. Atty. Nora M. Manella said in an interview that race has nothing to do with the pattern of prosecution. But she acknowledged that federal agents have focused their resources in minority communities, where the crack trade is believed to be the most prevalent and violent. "It would be irresponsible" to do otherwise, she said.

This week her office is expected to file in court a detailed analysis of its crack prosecution policies in response to allegations by minority crack defendants that they were unfairly targeted.

The dearth of white crack defendants in federal court here, as well as nationally, has sparked a politically charged debate and pitched legal battles over enforcement of tough laws enacted to quell an epidemic of the cheap, highly addictive drug.

A growing chorus of scholars, civil rights advocates and clergy contend that the vast disparity in sentences between white and nonwhite crack dealers illustrates how the war on drugs has unfairly punished minorities.

Whites are more likely than any other racial group to use crack, according to surveys by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But the U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that about 96% of the crack defendants in federal court are nonwhite. And, records show, the majority are low-level dealers, lookouts and couriers rather than drug kingpins.

A commission survey in 1992 showed that only minorities were prosecuted for crack offenses in more than half the federal court districts that handled crack cases across the country.

No whites were federally prosecuted in 17 states and many cities, including Boston, Denver, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Los Angeles. Out of hundreds of cases, only one white was convicted in California, two in Texas, three in New York and two in Pennsylvania.

"More blacks are being punished with these crack laws than whites," said Richard P. Conaboy, a federal district judge in Pennsylvania who chairs the commission. "A red flag has gone up. Now, we must work toward a system that is more fair."

In Los Angeles, sometimes called the crack capital of the country, critics say a two-tier system of justice has evolved--where black and Latino crack dealers are hammered with 10-year mandatory federal sentences while whites prosecuted in state court face a maximum of five years and often receive no more than a year in jail.

"We do see a lot of these cases and one does ask why some are in state court and some are being prosecuted in federal court," said U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall. "And if it's not based on race, what's it based on?"

Prosecutors have refused to disclose their formal prosecutorial guidelines to defense attorneys who have accused the government of unconstitutionally targeting minorities. But they have revealed their investigative strategy in court pleadings:

"The federal government has limited law enforcement resources and has elected to focus those resources on major crack cocaine traffickers in the communities in which those traffickers are predominantly found--the African American and Latino communities. . . . It is this that explains the absence of federal Caucasian [crack] cocaine defendants."

The effect of this policy has translated into drastically different sentences for defendants charged with similar offenses. Take the cases of two first-time offenders--one black and one white--both charged in Los Angeles with selling about two ounces of crack cocaine.

At age 20, Stephen Green, an African American, was arrested with 70 grams of crack by a federal undercover agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He was sentenced in federal court to a 10-year prison term--the mandatory minimum for selling more than 50 grams, even for first-time offenders.

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