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Former Baseball Star Willie Aikens Testifies Before Congress on Crack Cocaine Disparity

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On May 21, former major league baseball star Willie Mays Aikens testified at a U.S. House Judiciary Hearing about the harsh drug sentencing laws that put him behind bars for 14 years.

In 1994, Aikens was sentenced to nearly 21 years for crack cocaine distribution, bribery and gun charges. He was released last June after his sentence was reduced because of the U.S. Sentencing Commission's recent adjustment to the crack cocaine sentencing guidelines. At first glance, the charges, coupled with the lengthy sentence he received, one would think Aikens was a major drug dealer. In reality, he was simply an addict with a major drug problem that cost him dearly.

According to Willie, a woman arrived at his house looking for someone to get her drugs. It turned out that she was an uncover officer with the Kansas City policy department. Over the course of several weeks she accompanied Aikens to his drug supplier's house to buy cocaine. The informant insisted that he convert the powder cocaine into crack cocaine by cooking it for her. Aikens agreed to do it. He said that his justification to do so enabled him to steal more cocaine from her to support his drug habit. But he did not know that the Kansas City police department would turn over his case to the federal authorities where he would receive the maximum possible sentence under the "100-to-1" disparity ratio outlined in the federal guidelines for crack cocaine crimes.

This law triggers a mandatory five-year prison sentence for possessing five grams of crack -- the weight of two small sugar cubes -- while a person carrying 500 grams of powder cocaine would receive the same sentence. Instead of the extraordinarily long sentence Aikens received for the 62 grams he was charged with, he would have gotten 27 months for the same amount of powder cocaine.

There is growing momentum to equalize the laws. As a presidential candidate, then-Sen. Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation, introduced by then-Sen. Joe Biden, that called for the elimination of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Within 24 hours of taking office, the White House website made clear that Obama's campaign commitments to eliminate the crack/powder disparity was now official administration policy. Last month, Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department endorsed the complete elimination of the vast sentencing disparities between powder and crack cocaine cases, an inequality that research shows has disproportionately affected poor and minority defendants.

Aikens testified along with Lanny A. Breuer, head of the criminal justice division at the Justice Department, at a legislative hearing before the House Judiciary's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

The Crack the Disparity Coalition, a diverse network of religious, civil rights, criminal justice and law enforcement organizations working to end the disparity, hand delivered to Congress a petition with more than 21,000 signatures that highlight the support for reform. Veronica F. Coleman-Davis, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, also testified at the hearing.

"After more than 20 years, multiple studies debunking the myths, recommendations from the United States Sentencing Commission and at least two generations of families and children torn by the systemic imposition of imprisonment for one-100th the amount of cocaine than their white counterparts, it is surely not only good policy but also good politics to correct this injustice," said Davis in her hearing testimony.

"Already this spring we've had more movement on this issue than in the entire last Congress, said Jasmine Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Congress can no longer ignore their responsibility and needs to immediately enact legislation to overturn the two-decade-old law that has led to the greatest racial disparity in our nation's criminal justice system."