Crack penalty called racist
Ex-Lawrence High star and his brother will be sentenced
The discrepancy between penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine will be at issue next week in the sentencing of a former Lawrence basketball star and his brother.
Former Lawrence High School standout Maurice Trotter and his brother Mardell were convicted this year of dealing 56 grams of crack, a weight that one of their attorneys noted would cost 60 cents to mail from Lawrence to Kansas City.
Prosecutors want Maurice Trotter to spend at least 27 years in prison and Mardell Trotter at least 35 years – sentences that will put them behind bars until they’re retirement age.
If the Trotters had been dealing powder cocaine, they would have had to sell 100 times as much, roughly 11 pounds, to be facing penalties this high.
Prosecutors say the reason is that crack is more addictive and leads to more violence. But given that upward of 80 percent of those convicted of crack-cocaine offenses in federal court are black, some say the “100-to-one” ratio is a racially biased formula that’s long overdue for change.
“We don’t punish cigars more than we do cigarettes. We don’t punish vodka more than wine,” said Craig Reinarman, a sociology professor at University of California-Santa Cruz who published a 1997 book on the subject. “This drug was associated with a scary underclass, mostly black people, some brown… I hate to put it crudely, but this is about racism more than pharmacology.”
Maurice Trotter, 31, is a 1992 LHS graduate who led the team to a fourth-place finish in that year’s state tournament. He’s worked as a counselor at basketball camps run by Kansas University legend Danny Manning, who testified at the Trotters’ trial, and once dreamed of playing in the NBA.
The joint city-county Drug Enforcement Unit began investigating the Trotters after residents of the Pinckney Neighborhood complained about nuisances from a duplex at 338 Ind. The brothers were arrested in August 2004.
Unlike federal law, Kansas law doesn’t distinguish between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Lawrence Police Sgt. Tarik Khatib, the drug unit’s supervisor, said that when police are building a drug case, they’re aware of the minimum amount of “weight” they’ll have to pin on a suspect for the case to qualify for federal court.
“I know the federal system will deal with him better,” Khatib said. “But I don’t start out saying, ‘OK, we need to send this guy to prison for 40 years. I think if you get a guy off the street for 10 years, that’s a victory.”
The harsh sentences for crack date back to 1986, shortly after the death of basketball star Len Bias. The push for tougher laws was based largely on stories of rampant violence, “crack babies,” and the drug’s instant addictiveness – claims the Trotters’ attorneys argue were either overblown or untrue.
The Trotters will be sentenced Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., by Judge Carlos Murguia. Their attorneys don’t dispute that, under federal law, the two must go to prison for a long time.
But they’re asking Murguia to take the disparity between crack and powder into account and to give their clients some leniency.
“Employing this draconian ratio far overestimates the seriousness of the offense and undermines respect for the law,” defense attorney Kirk Redmond wrote in a motion.
Maurice Trotter is asking for a 10-year sentence, the mandatory minimum for dealing more than 50 grams of crack. Mardell Trotter is asking for a 25-year sentence, the mandatory minimum given that he has a prior drug-dealing conviction and was also convicted of a gun charge.
Is it justified?
The U.S. Sentencing Commission has repeatedly urged Congress to reduce the discrepancy between crack and powder, with no success.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Terra Morehead wrote that the Trotters’ requests for leniency “accomplish nothing except to minimize the gravity of the offenses for which they now stand convicted.”
The U.S. Department of Justice argues that, in 2000, crack defendants were twice as likely than powder-cocaine defendants to have been found with a gun. But Redmond wrote that there was “active use” of a weapon in only 2.3 percent of crack cases – and that judges can add harsher penalties in individual cases if there’s a gun.
Redmond cited numbers showing that roughly one in 17 Americans who has ever tried crack cocaine has used it in the past month. The rate for powder cocaine is roughly the same.
“That the continuation rates for crack and powder cocaine are approximately equal strongly disputes the notion that crack is more addictive,” he wrote.
He also cited seven medical studies that he said dispel the myth that crack has a more severe effect than other drugs on developing fetuses.
Sgt. Khatib has seen the effects of the drug firsthand on Lawrence’s streets.
“The ones that really get down and out and lose everything, in my experience, have been the crack users,” he said. “It hits your blood system very fast. It gives you a really high high and then it drops after 15 minutes…. Then you do it again and you want some more.”
Reinarman, the sociology professor, said binge users were a small slice of the “user population” and were the ones most likely to come in contact with police.
Khatib said that he had the sense that the crack-cocaine trade is more organized and more likely to erupt in violence than the trade in other drugs in the Lawrence area.
But is the violence bad enough to justify the 100-1 ratio?
“I can’t make that call,” he said.