Despite his role as a crucial cog (.278, 20 HR’s, 98 RBI’s) for the 1980 AL Champion Kansas City Royals, 1B Willie Mays Aikens finds himself rotting in the stony lonesome — FCI Jesup, to be exact. Aikens, writes the Washington Post’s Darryl Fears, “is a poster child for what some jurists and civil rights activists say is the absurdity of the difference between the way federal law treats people convicted of crack cocaine offenses and those found guilty of crimes involving powder cocaine.”
Aikens received more than 15 years for possession of 64 grams of crack — about the weight of a large Snickers bar. To receive an equivalent sentence, he would have had to possess nearly 6 1/2 kilos — more than 14 pounds — of powder cocaine.
“You can supply a whole neighborhood with 6 1/2 kilos,” Aikens said by telephone from prison, where he is in the 13th year of his sentence.
Activists, lawyers and many federal judges say cases such as Aikens’s demonstrate the inequity of cocaine sentencing laws and validate the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recent decision to ease prison time guidelines for crack offenders. The new guidelines will apply retroactively to about 19,500 inmates.
Within hours of the decision, Aikens said he was on the telephone with his lawyers, asking them to request a sentence reduction. They calculated that the new guidelines could shave nearly 2 1/2 years off his sentence.
“The disparity, as far as I’m concerned, is totally wrong,” said Aikens, a nonviolent offender. “This took me away from my family. My girls were 4 and 5 years old when I was sentenced. Now they’re 18 and 19.”
The sentencing disparity is more than two decades old. It was established after the cocaine-related death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias prompted Congress to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. It allowed sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine, seen at the time as the more dangerous form of the drug, to be 100 times more severe than for crimes involving powder cocaine.
The law was intended to curb the violence associated with the crack cocaine trade in black communities. But opponents say it was fraught with problems.
More than 80 percent of defendants were, like Aikens, African American. According to this year’s sentencing commission report to Congress, the median weight of the crack carried by offenders was 51 grams. The median weight carried by powder cocaine offenders was 6,000 grams.
“Most of these crack dealers are, in fact, low-level offenders,” said Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. “Most of them aren’t violent. There is this vicious stereotype of black dope dealers armed to the teeth. But it’s not true. It’s a shame that this type of stereotype started coming out again in the debate over drug sentencing.”