Though conceding that some white crack dealers may have escaped their attention, federal law enforcement agents say they target minority neighborhoods because crack trafficking has been rampant and most destructive there.
"A very, very large percentage of those dealing in crack cocaine, in a visible way on the street corners of Los Angeles and elsewhere, happen to be black," said former DEA Administrator Robert C. Bonner, who also served as U.S. attorney and a federal judge in Los Angeles. "If you targeted heroin coming out of Southeast Asia, you can rest assured that the majority of traffickers would be ethnic Chinese."
Said Special Agent George A. Rodriguez, who heads the local office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: "To say we just target blacks and Latinos because they are blacks and Latinos is just crazy. We try to go after the violence, the armed offender."
Convicted crack dealers Robert Ross, Darcy Thigpen and Dewayne Falconer match that description. These members of the East Coast Crips gang, who have long criminal records, received between 32 and 40 years in federal prison after their arrests in 1992.
During a search of their two apartments on East 62nd Street in Los Angeles, federal and local officers seized a cache of firearms, including an AK-47 assault rifle, along with two kilograms of powder cocaine and 66 grams of crack at various stages of preparation for sale.
Despite big cases like this, critics say federal authorities, overall, have fallen far short of their mission to apprehend the most vicious crack dealers, for whom the stiff federal penalties were intended.
In 1986, Congress set minimum five-year sentences for anyone convicted of distributing at least five grams of crack--an amount weighing the same as a 25-cent piece and worth a few hundred dollars on the street--and 10-year sentences involving more than 50 grams.
"Congress was supposed to send a message to go after the highest-level traffickers, but the results were the opposite of what was intended," said attorney Eric E. Sterling, the president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation who served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee when the legislation passed.
Federal judges who regularly preside over drug cases have noticed with some dismay that relatively few major traffickers have been punished.
"Unfortunately, in this court's experience, those high in the chain of drug distribution are seldom caught and seldom prosecuted," said U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts in Los Angeles, as he gave a 10-year sentence to a young black man--a college graduate who had mailed a package containing crack.
In another Los Angeles case, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Gadbois lamented handing down a mandatory 10-year prison sentence to a welfare mother of four who was paid $52 to mail a package that, unbeknown to her, contained crack.
"This woman doesn't belong in prison for 10 years for what I understand she did," Gadbois said. "That is just crazy."
Only eight cases out of 146 surveyed nationally by the U.S. Sentencing Commission two years ago involved high-level dealers. Another 45 were mid-level dealers. The vast majority--or 93--were filed against street-level pushers, bodyguards, lookouts and couriers.
In Los Angeles, federal authorities have estimated in court papers that they prosecute about 30 crack dealers a year. Some have histories of violence, gang membership and firearms violations. But others are bit players.
Of 70 crack convictions in the Los Angeles area during a five-year period, ending in 1992, 15 involved defendants charged with trafficking in less than 50 grams of crack, prosecutors have said. Those charged with large amounts included low-level couriers.
Many of them, defense attorneys contend, were hardly drug kingpins.
"We see street-level guys all the time who sell $20 doses [of crack]," said Maria E. Stratton, who heads the federal public defender's office in Los Angeles. "They end up in federal court facing a massive amount of time. They don't have gang affiliations. They don't have firearms. They shouldn't be here."
In some cases, the dealers are solicited again and again by undercover agents until their sales reach the 50-gram threshold, triggering a 10-year mandatory prison term, defense attorneys say.
Defendants Gregory Jenkins and two others were solicited three times by undercover federal agents targeting a Compton auto repair shop, according to court records. An indictment accuses them of selling 6 grams the first time, 27 grams the second and 78 grams the third.
Though his co-defendants are accused of actually making the sales, Jenkins faces 10 years on a conspiracy charge for allegedly making incriminating statements, helping to place a phone call to a supplier and temporarily holding a bag of crack.
Federal authorities defend this technique, known as "bargaining-up," saying it helps determine whether a dealer can deliver large amounts of crack.