Mandatory Minimums and the Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity
Featuring The Honorable Paul G. Cassell and The Honorable
William K. Sessions III
In 1986, Congress enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, instituting mandatory penalties for crack cocaine
offenses that have been characterized as the harshest in history. The law established drastically different
penalty structures for crack and powder cocaine offenses, based on the understanding that crack cocaine was
more dangerous than powder cocaine and posed a greater threat to public safety. This is what has come to be
known as the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity. The law's effect on the disproportionate number of African
Americans in United States prisons is staggering. While drug use rates are similar among all racial groups,
African American drug offenders have a twenty percent greater likelihood of receiving a prison sentence than
their white counterparts and African Americans now serve virtually as much time in prison for drug offenses
as whites serve for violent offenses.
This year the United States Sentencing Commission took action by amending the federal sentencing
guidelines to lower guideline sentences for crack cocaine offenses. However, the Commission does not have
the authority to repeal the mandatory minimum penalties for crack cocaine sentences. There are currently six
bills before the United States Congress addressing this issue and the Sentencing Commission recommended
in May of 2007 that Congress take action this year to remedy this gross disparity. In addition, the U.S.
Supreme Court accepted certiorari in the case of Kimbrough v. United States, a crack cocaine possession case
in which a federal judge imposed a below-guidelines sentence, stating that the sentence called for under the
guidelines was higher than necessary to do justice in this case.
The Honorable Paul G. Cassell is a Professor of Law at S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah
and Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Utah. The Honorable William K. Sessions is
Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Vermont and Co-Chair of the United States
This event is co-sponsored by The Stanford Federalist Society,
The Stanford Black Law Students Association, and
The Stanford Criminal Law Society.