KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Police found such a small amount of crack cocaine in James V. Taylor's car that investigators described it as unweighable. It was enough for a 15-year prison sentence in Missouri, where the courts make an enormous distinction between crack and powder cocaine.
Missouri and several other states followed the federal government's lead in creating such disparities decades ago, but now federal law has changed and prisoner advocates say it's time for the states to do the same. Most drug cases are prosecuted at the state level.
Defense attorneys and other critics of the tougher crack sentences say they subject mostly blacks to long prison terms while those caught with powder cocaine — mostly whites — get far more lenient treatment. Some prosecutors defend the disparities, saying that because crack is smoked, it gets into the bloodstream faster than snorted cocaine, produces a more intense high and is generally considered more addictive.
The federal government imposed tougher sentences for crack in 1986, when use of the drug was rampant and 22-year-old basketball star Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication. Early news reports said Bias had used crack, but after the federal law was passed a teammate of Bias' testified that Bias had actually snorted powder cocaine the night he died.
A person convicted of crack cocaine possession got the same mandatory federal prison term as someone with 100 times as much powder cocaine. President Barack Obama signed a law last month narrowing the federal disparity to 18-to-1.
Fourteen states also passed laws treating crack cases more severely than those involving powder cocaine, though only 10 states currently have such laws on the books. Missouri's is by far the toughest: Someone with 6 grams or more of crack faces the same prison term — at least 10 years — as someone with 75 times more powder cocaine.
"It was too extreme," Taylor said of his case, which began during a February 2005 traffic stop where a Farmington police officer found a crack pipe in his car.
Taylor, 46, of Park Hills, Mo., was convicted twice in the case. The first conviction was overturned because it was based, in part, on a second crack pipe and a half-gram of crack found in his wife's purse. But Taylor was convicted again in 2007 based solely on the residue on his crack pipe. He also had assorted previous felony convictions for theft and credit card fraud.
"They found the crack pipe, washed it out and found trace evidence, and gave me 15 years," said Taylor, who has since been paroled and now works as a hotel maintenance man. "If someone had a drug test and tested positive, that's trace evidence. That's no more than what I had. They should be locked up, too."
Taylor, who is black, said blacks are more likely to use crack than whites, whose addiction of choice in Missouri is methamphetamine.
The only states with crack-cocaine disparities greater than the one in the revised federal law are Missouri and New Hampshire, where traffickers face a maximum of 30 years in prison for 5 grams or more of crack or 28 times more powder cocaine. Other states that have a sentencing disparity are Arizona, California, Maine, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Virginia.
Unlike Missouri, New Hampshire does not have mandatory minimum sentences, except in the cases of drug enterprise leaders or dealers selling within 1,000 feet of a school.
"The mandatory minimums are the biggest obstacle," said Jeff Levin, a former New Hampshire state public defender who is now a federal public defender. "You could have the most sympathetic defendant and that doesn't make a difference unless the judge is given the option to go under the mandatory minimum."
Dan Viets, a Missouri defense attorney who handles a lot of drug cases, has a client who was convicted last month of trafficking 9 grams of crack and faces a prison term of 10 years to life when he is sentenced in October.
"The effect of having these incredibly harsh crack cocaine laws is we have a great deal more African-Americans behind bars in this state for crack offenses," Viets said.
"It's just another form of cocaine, after all," he said. "The hysteria around crack cocaine in the '80s pretty much has been disproved."
Viets said he has urged lawmakers to reduce or eliminate the disparity, but he added that even the most progressive politicians are not optimistic about reforming the law.
"The implication is if you're not for this (disparity), then you're soft on drugs," Viets said.
Jason Lamb, executive director of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services, said the disparity recognizes the more addictive nature of crack.
"Federal law did not eliminate the disparity, it narrowed the gap," Lamb said. "Congress recognized there's a valid reason for a disparity."
Taylor can attest to the addictive nature of crack. He moved from St. Louis to St. Francois County, about an hour south, in part to make it tougher for him to get the drug.
"You can take a person that's got everything and a year later they got nothing," because of crack, he said. "I've been through that several times in my life."
Taylor also said that although he thinks his sentence was excessive, he knows where the blame ultimately lies.
"I look at it like well, if I'm not doing what I'm doing they wouldn't have the opportunity to do me like that. In my pity party, I realize it's all my fault," he said. "As long as I steer away from crimes and drugs, I don't have to worry about going to jail."
Lavoie reported from Boston. Associated Press writer Lynne Tuohy in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.