Crack-ing the Media Myth

Published date01 March 2010
Date01 March 2010
Subject MatterArticles
Crack-ing the Media Myth
Reconsidering Sentencing Severity for
Cocaine Offenders by Drug Type
Richard D. Hartley
and J. Mitchell Miller
Federal narcotics sentencing policy, most notably for cocaine, has been criticized in regard to its
excessive severity and racially disparate outcomes. Crack cocaine was heavily portrayed in the
media during the 1980s as a dire social threat directly worsening the crime rate, a threat taken
seriously as indicated by greater legislative enactment of mandatory minimums specifically
targeting narcotics offenses. The research here uses a theoretical-mixed methodological symmetry
(focal concerns perspective—content/regression analysis) to explore media portrayal of, and case
outcomes for, crack versus powder cocaine offenders. Media portrayals of powder and crack
cocaine offenders are considered through examination of USA today articles. These media portrayals
are compared with official outcomes through a temporally corresponding regression analysis of
federal crack and powder cocaine offenders from federal district court. Findings inform discussion
of policy implications and invite scrutiny of media construction of crime problems.
crack cocaine, cocaine sentencing, content analysis
A wide range of critics have called for reform of federal cocaine sentencing policy in recent years.
The criticism centers on charges that sentencing for cocaine offenses are unfair and inefficient, con-
cerns seemingly validated directly by racially disparate sentencing outcomes and the failure of the
drug war generally (Gray, 2001; Jensen, Gerber, & Mosher, 2004; Tonry, 1995). A legislative effort
to ‘‘gettough’’ on narcotics offenders anchored a crime control outlook popularized during and since
the Reagan administration. This effort has been frequently portrayed as responsive to a media-
incited moral panic about cocaine and specifically the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, which
was characterized as extremely socially threatening and crime inducing (The Sentencing Project,
The risks of drug use received national attention in 1986 after college basketball star Len Bias
died from an apparent cocaine overdose, with resultant media-led moral panic focusing on crack
in the inner city (Inciardi, Pottieger, & Surrat, 1996). In response, Congress enacted numerous man-
datory minimum penalties specifically targeting various narcotics and violent offenses under the
Department of Criminal Justice, College of Public Policy, University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas
Corresponding Author:
Richard D. Hartley, Department of Criminal Justice, College of Public Policy, University of Texas at San Antonio, 501 W.
Durango Boulevard, San Antonio, TX 78207 Email:
Criminal Justice Review
35(1) 67-89
ª2010 Georgia State University
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016809348359
Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (Pub. L. No. 99-570, 100 Stat. 3207 (1986)) and the Omnibus Anti
Drug Abuse Act of 1988 (Pub. L. No. 100-690, 102 Stat. 4181 (1988)).
These mandatory minimum statutes increased the number of individuals receiving lengthy prison
sentences by subjecting mid- or low-level participants to the same penalties as major distributors of
narcotics and by setting the mandatory minimum trigger for crack cocaine at an especially low
level—5 g. The passage of these comprehensive and wide-ranging mandatory minimum statutes
coupled with low-level minimum trigger thresholds for crack cocaine offenses increased the number
of cocaine, and especially crack cocaine, offenders being prosecuted, convicted, and sent to federal
prison. The sentence lengths of narcotics offenders under these statutes increased and made most
offenders ineligible for parole. In 1992, 74%of the 8,972 cocaine cases in federal district court were
powder cocaine offenses, by 1996, the number of cocaine cases in federal district court decreased
overall (8, 705) but half of the cases were now powder offenses and the other half involved crack
(United States Sentencing Commission [USSC], 2007). In 2000, the composition was similar; there
were 5,241 powder cases and 4,706 crack cases (USSC, 2002).
According to the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ, 1992), cocaine use peaked around
1985 and has been declining since. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA)
reports 14 million illicit drug users in 2000, 1.2 million of which were users of cocaine. This
accounts for roughly 0.5%of the U.S. population—265,000 of which were identified crack users.
In addition, according to the NHSDA (2000), illicit drug use was highly convergent across racial
and ethnic categories (6.4%of Whites and Blacks and 5.3%of Hispanics report use in the past
month). According to the USDOJ (2006), however, nearly 60%of the current prison population are
racial or ethnic minorities.
Racial disparity in federal imprisonment rates may have to do with the fact that minorities com-
prise a disproportionate share of federal narcotics inmates convicted for crack cocaine. Some argue
this can be explained by the nature of the crack versus powder cocaine markets (Fagen & Chin,
1990). Crack tends to be an urban phenomenon, sold out in the open at the street level, whereas
cocaine tends to be sold in closed, private settings (Inciardi et al., 1996; The Sentencing Project,
2002). In addition, crack is far cheaper than powder cocaine and minorities who use or sell crack
are more likely to be detected by police (Lockwood, Pottieger, & Inciardi, 1995). An alternative
argument is that the mandatory minimum trigger for crack is 100 times lower than that for powder
cocaine; in other words, those using or selling crack, as opposed to powder cocaine, are singled out
for increasingly harsh punishments. Crack was touted by politicians and the media as physiologi-
cally and psychotropically more dangerous than powder cocaine (The Sentencing Project, 2008).
News reporters described the addictive qualities of crack cocaine as leading to a national crisis
(Chiricos, 2004; Inciardi et al., 1996). Unit dosing, however, is similar for both forms of cocaine
and both are ‘‘now widely acknowledged as pharmacologically identical’’ (The Sentencing Project,
2008, p. 5). Therefore, under the statutory minimum ratio, powder cocaine ‘‘represents a 100 fold
increase over the crack cocaine form in the number of doses available for use’’ (Hatsukami and
Fischman, 1996, p. 1581).
Regardless of the explanation, mandatory minimums targeting narcotics offenses have helped to
drive one of the largest imprisonment binges in U.S. history. The U.S. prison population in the last
20 years has tripled and the number of inmates sent to prison on narcotics offenses has increased
eightfold (Reinarman & Levine, 2004).
Less than 10 years after this legislative mandatory minimum binge, the United States Sentencing
Commission issued the first of a series of reports regarding federal cocaine sentencing policy. Each
of these reports cited statistics contrary to the idea of crack offenders as more threatening or danger-
ous than users of cocaine or other illicit narcotics (USSC, 1995, 1997, 2002, 2007). The 1995 report,
for instance, stated that ‘‘there is little empirical evidence ... to suggest that either crack or powder
cocaine users commit large numbers of violent acts to raise money to buy drugs’’ (p. ix). Regarding
68 Criminal Justice Review 35(1)

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