Crack vs. Cocaine, Mandatory Minimums, and Racial Disparity in Sentencing

Richard D. Hartley, University of Nebraska at Omaha

In 1986 Congress passed a federal law imposing a five-year mandatory minimum for an offender who possessed five grams of crack-cocaine (crack). That same offender would have to be caught with five hundred grams of cocaine hydrochloride (cocaine) in order to receive the same mandatory minimum. With unit dosing roughly the same, the hydrochloride form represents a one hundred fold increase over the crack-cocaine form in the number of doses available for use. Therein creating a sentencing disparity between the two drugs. Also surrounding the crack vs. cocaine issue is the issue of racial disparity. Crack offenders are typically poor, minorities, and offenders who use cocaine are typically not poor, and white. Jointly these two variables have been charged as a certain cause of sentencing disparity. For this study, 1996 data from an earlier study is utilized and ordinary least squares regression is employed to determine whether sentencing disparities exist for crack vs. cocaine, and racial, sentencing practices. Findings reveal that no disparities existed for either variable, that is neither the crack vs. cocaine variable nor the race variable had an influence on sentence length. Therefore the evidence of more uniform sentences, and disparity abatement racially is clearly demonstrated by the results of this study. Why then, is there still wide spread disparagement of the guidelines on grounds of racial disparity? I charge mandatory minimums for the continued aversion, especially in the case of narcotics offenses, where the minimums are attached to narcotics that are more widely used by minorities and the poor. These mandatory minimums were legislated prior to the implementation of the guidelines and need now to be abolished in order for the guidelines to complete their extermination of the disparity bug.

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Updated 05/20/2006