The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a claim that stiff penalties for dealing crack cocaine amount to racial discrimination and refused to reconsider the 10-year prison term given a black man whose first criminal offense was selling crack.
The action came as no surprise. It marks at least the third time in the last three years that the justices have turned away a race-bias challenge to the crack cocaine laws.
Nonetheless, prominent blacks have continued to raise the issue. The latest appeal was signed by Los Angeles attorney Johnnie L. Cochran and Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr.
In 1986, after the sudden cocaine overdose death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, Congress passed a new drug law that imposed a 10-year mandatory federal prison term on people caught with at least 50 grams - roughly one-tenth of a pound - of crack cocaine. A seller of powder cocaine would have to get caught with 5,000 grams or more to get the same sentence.
Despite complaints from judges and penal experts, Congress and President Clinton have refused to consider changing the law.
For its part, the Supreme Court has refused to strike down laws on grounds that they have a “disparate impact” on some groups.
The justices have drawn a distinction between laws intended to discriminate and those that have a discriminatory effect.
On the one hand, it is unconstitutional for the government to pass a law intended to single out a racial or ethnic group for punishment.
Similarly, it is unconstitutional for officials to enforce the law in a discriminatory manner.
However, laws are not unconstitutional, the court has said earlier, simply because they are shown to have a harsher effect on some groups.
In recent years, nearly 90 percent of those charged with federal crack cocaine charges have been black, the court has acknowledged. However, white men account for more than 90 percent of the federal convictions for crimes such as LSD dealing, obscenity and financial fraud, it noted.