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Chipping at tough crack sentencing

Laws were ineffective and the drug's ravages overblown, experts say.

December 30, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt and David G. Savage | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In the spring of 1986, lawmakers had become alarmed by reports of urban crime waves linked to crack, then a new and highly addictive form of cocaine. News reports were full of images of writhing "crack babies" deeply addicted to the drug through their mothers, doomed to "a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority," as one columnist observed.

The sudden death that June of basketball star Len Bias galvanized Washington into passing extraordinarily strict drug laws. Selling as little as 5 grams of crack would bring a mandatory five-year federal prison term, with no possibility of parole.

Now those laws are being questioned, and in some cases relaxed, in the face of evidence that some predictions about the ravages of crack were overblown -- and that the harsh penalties were ineffective.

This month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to reduce the prison terms of as many as 19,500 federal inmates convicted of crack-related crimes. The decision, which came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court gave federal judges discretion to deviate from strict drug sentencing guidelines, marked a milestone in the two-decade debate over the drug.

Though there is no debate that crack harms users, the grim forecasts of empty lives for the children of crack-smoking mothers were overblown. The effects "have not been as devastating as originally believed," the National Institute on Drug Abuse said in testimony before the sentencing commission last year.

Crack has the same effect on the body over time as powder cocaine, and poses "less risk" than exposure to alcohol or cigarettes, said Harolyn M. E. Belcher, a developmental pediatrician at the Kennedy Krieger Institute for disabled children in Baltimore.

The stiff penalties also did not curb violent crime. Homicides nationwide rose despite the new laws, increasing by about 25% from 1985 to 1993.

"It was counterproductive," said Alfred Blumstein, a crime expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "The replacements that got recruited into the markets to replace the people that were being shipped off to prison were a lot more dangerous than the people they replaced."

The violence eventually declined, but Blumstein said that was largely because crack failed to attract new customers in light of its reported health dangers. "Youthful offenders have moved on to other drugs," he said.

It's also debatable whether the tougher laws had much effect on the drug trade. Resilient drug markets continue to confound law-enforcement efforts. After Congress enacted stiff penalties for crack, the drug's street price declined for several years, making it, in theory, more available.

None of that was foreseen in the summer of 1986, when crack was rapidly becoming the cheap wine of the drug trade, a lower-cost cocaine alternative for poor neighborhoods. A tipping point in the debate was the death of Bias, a University of Maryland basketball player who suffered cardiac arrest blamed on a cocaine overdose two days after he had been drafted by the Boston Celtics.

"The death of Bias was the fuse that set off this explosion" of activity in Congress, said Eric E. Sterling, who was then counsel for the House subcommittee on crime. According to Sterling, lawmakers believed that "if a healthy, superb athlete like him can be struck down by this drug, this country will be devastated if we don't act."

Although it was never determined whether Bias had been using crack or powder cocaine, then-House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. made crack a top priority when Congress returned from summer recess. Democrats, hoping to retake control of the Senate that fall, seized on the issue as a way to show their stripes in attacking crime.

The resulting legislation was tougher than had been recommended by the Reagan administration.

Mandatory prison terms were set making a drug dealer selling crack subject to the same sentence as one selling 100 times as much powder cocaine.

Selling 50 grams of crack triggered a 10-year term in federal prison, the same sentence for selling 5,000 grams of powder cocaine.

Thousands of young African American men, the predominant users and sellers of crack, were given lengthy prison terms.

What's more, in their zeal to stem crack's destructive effect, Congress set the amount that would trigger criminal charges so low that prisons soon became jammed with low-level dealers and operators. About half the 4,000 to 5,000 people charged with crack offenses in federal court every year are street dealers or couriers rather than wholesale suppliers.

By the mid-1990s, violent street crime associated with the drug was starting to abate and the dire, media-driven predictions of generations of crack babies were suspect. The sentencing commission began to recognize problems with the drug laws, and voted in 1995 to make the guidelines for crack sentences the same as for powder cocaine.

But Congress resoundingly intervened and blocked the more lenient crack penalties.

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