05/30/2014 04:26 pm ET Updated May 30, 2014

Prosecutor Tells Black Congressmembers The War On Drugs Isn't Racist

McGruff the Crime Dog and Nancy Reagan must have been busy. Two former federal prosecutors testifying at a House Judiciary hearing on Friday said the U.S. is winning the war on drugs and claimed to "represent" poor communities of color.

One of them, confronted with data about how drug laws disproportionately impact blacks, pled ignorance and refused to change his mind, saying, "I cannot argue the statistics."

The hearing was held as part of the Judiciary Committee's task force on overcriminalization, which is considering whether the federal government should alter laws that strip federal judges of their discretion in sentencing defendants, particularly for drug crimes. Attorney General Eric Holder has endorsed reforming "draconian" minimum sentences.

Even after the passage of 2010 reforms, it still takes only 28 grams of crack versus 500 grams of powder cocaine to force a five-year mandatory minimum. Ninety-three percent of crack cocaine traffickers sentenced in 2013 were black or Hispanic, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics.

But former North Carolina Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Evenson told the panel -- which included pro-reform African-American Democrats such as Reps. John Conyers (Mich.), Bobby Scott (Va.) and Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) -- that prosecutors like him "represent poor communities of color who are sick and tired of that drug trafficker abiding by that kind of behavior in the district."

"Quite frankly, I am personally offended when I hear charges of racism," said Evenson. "The laws are race neutral, we go where the battle is hottest, we represent people that are victimized by this activity. It doesn't make any difference what neighborhood it is. I've never prosecuted anybody on the basis of race."

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said that blacks are eight times more likely to be arrested than whites for marijuana possession. According to the ACLU, this is true in three states and the District of Columbia, while nationally, African-Americans are 3.73 times more likely to undergo arrests than whites.

"Sir, I cannot argue the statistics," Evenson replied. "All I can tell you is that on a daily basis I deal with drug agents that are black, white, Indian. I have drug dealers that are black, white Indian in our district. We have prosecuted wherever the evidence led us."

But Evenson did not seem to have convinced Cohen or the other Democratic members of the panel.

“To say that poor communities of color support profiling, investigative, and charging drug policies that disproportionately impact them, cripple their communities, and ignore white collar crime does not comport with reality," Conyers said in a statement after the hearing. "We need to focus on rehabilitation and deterrence in ways that work, rather than stubbornly sticking to retribution and incapacitation, which has not worked."

Evenson was representing the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, which has previously come out against Holder's push to reform mandatory minimums, claiming that they target only the most serious criminals. The NAAUSA also circulated a letter from former federal counter-narcotics officials who proudly stated that they "served in the war on drugs."

Evenson seemed particularly concerned that the loss of mandatory minimums would strip federal prosecutors of one of their key leverage points against drug offenders. Faced with tough minimums, many feel forced to cooperate.

"We will not be able to go after the biggest drug dealers unless we have witnesses," he said. "This is a hard, mean business we're in."

He and another former federal prosecutor, William Otis, said the U.S. should stick to harsh mandatory minimum punishments.

"We know what works and we know what fails. What fails is what we had in the 1960s and 70s, when we had a feckless and unrealistic belief in rehabilitation and not really a belief in incarceration," Otis said. "What works is what we've done for the last 30 years."

But witnesses on the other side, like Marc Levin from the conservative criminal justice reform group Right on Crime, rattled off statistics about successes in states that have recently reduced or eliminated mandatory minimums. For example, South Carolina got rid of a host of mandatory minimums in 2010, and since then, the state has seen its crime rate go down by 14 percent.

"After decades of expensive, excessive drug sentencing laws, it’s telling that today’s supporters of those laws are retired prosecutors who are using talking points from the 1980s," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a non-profit group working to reform sentencing laws. "Drugs are a serious problem, but 30 years of locking up drug users and sellers alike for decades hasn’t solved it."



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