Despite evidence that large numbers of whites use and sell crack cocaine, federal law enforcement in Southern California has waged its war against crack almost exclusively in minority neighborhoods, exposing black and Latino offenders to the toughest drug penalties in the nation.
Not a single white, records show, has been convicted of a crack cocaine offense in federal courts serving Los Angeles and six Southland counties since Congress enacted stiff mandatory sentences for crack dealers in 1986.
Only a few whites have been federally prosecuted in the region stretching from San Luis Obispo to the Mexican border, while hundreds of minorities have been locked up in federal prison.
Virtually all white crack offenders have been prosecuted in state court, where sentences are far less. The difference can be up to eight years for the same offense.
In Los Angeles County, hundreds of white crack traffickers were convicted in state court between 1988 and 1994, according to data obtained by The Times. No whites were prosecuted federally during this period, though one was indicted a few months ago and is awaiting trial.
Los Angeles U.S. Atty. Nora M. Manella said in an interview that race has nothing to do with the pattern of prosecution. But she acknowledged that federal agents have focused their resources in minority communities, where the crack trade is believed to be the most prevalent and violent. “It would be irresponsible” to do otherwise, she said.
This week her office is expected to file in court a detailed analysis of its crack prosecution policies in response to allegations by minority crack defendants that they were unfairly targeted.
The dearth of white crack defendants in federal court here, as well as nationally, has sparked a politically charged debate and pitched legal battles over enforcement of tough laws enacted to quell an epidemic of the cheap, highly addictive drug.
A growing chorus of scholars, civil rights advocates and clergy contend that the vast disparity in sentences between white and nonwhite crack dealers illustrates how the war on drugs has unfairly punished minorities.
Whites are more likely than any other racial group to use crack, according to surveys by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But the U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that about 96% of the crack defendants in federal court are nonwhite. And, records show, the majority are low-level dealers, lookouts and couriers rather than drug kingpins.
A commission survey in 1992 showed that only minorities were prosecuted for crack offenses in more than half the federal court districts that handled crack cases across the country.
No whites were federally prosecuted in 17 states and many cities, including Boston, Denver, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Los Angeles. Out of hundreds of cases, only one white was convicted in California, two in Texas, three in New York and two in Pennsylvania.
“More blacks are being punished with these crack laws than whites,” said Richard P. Conaboy, a federal district judge in Pennsylvania who chairs the commission. “A red flag has gone up. Now, we must work toward a system that is more fair.”
In Los Angeles, sometimes called the crack capital of the country, critics say a two-tier system of justice has evolved--where black and Latino crack dealers are hammered with 10-year mandatory federal sentences while whites prosecuted in state court face a maximum of five years and often receive no more than a year in jail.
“We do see a lot of these cases and one does ask why some are in state court and some are being prosecuted in federal court,” said U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall. “And if it’s not based on race, what’s it based on?”
Prosecutors have refused to disclose their formal prosecutorial guidelines to defense attorneys who have accused the government of unconstitutionally targeting minorities. But they have revealed their investigative strategy in court pleadings:
“The federal government has limited law enforcement resources and has elected to focus those resources on major crack cocaine traffickers in the communities in which those traffickers are predominantly found--the African American and Latino communities. . . . It is this that explains the absence of federal Caucasian [crack] cocaine defendants.”
The effect of this policy has translated into drastically different sentences for defendants charged with similar offenses. Take the cases of two first-time offenders--one black and one white--both charged in Los Angeles with selling about two ounces of crack cocaine.
At age 20, Stephen Green, an African American, was arrested with 70 grams of crack by a federal undercover agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He was sentenced in federal court to a 10-year prison term--the mandatory minimum for selling more than 50 grams, even for first-time offenders.
Daniel G. Siemianowski, a 37-year-old white, was arrested with 67 grams of crack in the front seat of his car by a county sheriff’s narcotics investigator. He was sentenced in state court to less than a year in jail and probation.
Federal prosecutors have said in retrospect that they might well have prosecuted Siemianowski, if they had known of his arrest. But Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Groves, who made the bust, said he did not think Siemianowski was a big enough dealer to refer him for federal prosecution.
Typically, local police submit their cases to the district attorney’s office, while federal agents take theirs to the U.S. attorney. When police work jointly with federal agents on drug task forces, their cases can be sent either place.
While defending themselves in court last year against accusations of discrimination, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles stated that they did not contest accusations that only minorities have been prosecuted federally for selling crack.
Since then, one white has been indicted, said Manella. In February, federal agents arrested Joel Schneider in Venice for allegedly offering to trade 170 grams of crack and 125 grams of powder cocaine for firearms. As is common in drug cases, Manella said, a confidential informant led authorities to the defendant. “We were not in the garden looking for truffles,” she said.
Under escalating criticism from defense attorneys and some judges, Manella recently dispatched staff members to search through nearly 500 old case files to identify any other white crack dealers.
For more than five years, federal authorities in Los Angeles have been dogged by allegations of racial discrimination. A 30-month legal battle was set off in 1989 when federal anti-drug sweeps at local schools netted scores of suspected dealers--96% of whom were minorities.
Defense attorneys claimed that only minority schools were targeted and accused federal prosecutors of declining to indict whites who had been arrested. There was no finding by the court of deliberate discrimination. Debate was cut short when the government negotiated plea bargains with many of the defendants.
The same issue flared again earlier this year. In a stinging defeat for the U.S. attorney, crack charges were dismissed against four black defendants by a panel of 11 justices on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. They threw out the case because the government had refused to provide evidence that might determine whether the defendants had been unfairly targeted.
“Race is a factor whether the government wants to admit it or not,” said Timothy C. Lannen, one of the attorneys who won the appeal.
Voting with the majority, Justice Stephen Reinhardt cited statistics compiled by the federal public defender’s office that he said raise “a strong inference of invidious discrimination” against minorities by the U.S. attorney’s office.
He also pointed to the “alarming conclusions” of a UCLA study that found there were no whites among 71 defendants prosecuted federally by the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles during a five-year period through 1992.
For roughly the same time, UCLA researchers hired by defense attorneys found that state prosecutors with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office handled more than 8,000 crack trafficking cases, including at least 222 whites, or about 3% of the total. The study did not tally the scores of additional whites prosecuted in the other six counties within the federal jurisdiction.
The study, commissioned by defense attorneys and disputed by the government, concludes that blacks in Los Angeles are at far greater risk of being federally prosecuted than any other racial group.
There was no explanation offered for this. But chance alone does not account for the pattern, according to the report’s author, Richard A. Berk, director of the Center for the Study of the Environment and Society at UCLA.
Updating and expanding on the UCLA data, The Times reviewed law enforcement data and court files and found that no whites were prosecuted federally for crack trafficking in the seven-county Los Angeles region during 1993 and 1994, while 183 white defendants were prosecuted by the state in Los Angeles County.
Federal prosecutors blasted the UCLA study last year, saying record-keeping flaws in the data overstate the number of whites prosecuted by the state.
Furthermore, former Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven D. Clymer pointed out that the whites charged in state court were not brought to the attention of federal prosecutors. “You can’t say we discriminated when we did not even know these cases were out there,” Clymer said.
Even if federal prosecutors had known about the white arrests, few would have been indicted federally because only a “minuscule percentage” of cases involved quantities of crack that merited federal indictment, Clymer said. About 20 of the 222 whites cited by the UCLA study might have qualified, Clymer concluded.
Though conceding that some white crack dealers may have escaped their attention, federal law enforcement agents say they target minority neighborhoods because crack trafficking has been rampant and most destructive there.
“A very, very large percentage of those dealing in crack cocaine, in a visible way on the street corners of Los Angeles and elsewhere, happen to be black,” said former DEA Administrator Robert C. Bonner, who also served as U.S. attorney and a federal judge in Los Angeles. “If you targeted heroin coming out of Southeast Asia, you can rest assured that the majority of traffickers would be ethnic Chinese.”
Said Special Agent George A. Rodriguez, who heads the local office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: “To say we just target blacks and Latinos because they are blacks and Latinos is just crazy. We try to go after the violence, the armed offender.”
Convicted crack dealers Robert Ross, Darcy Thigpen and Dewayne Falconer match that description. These members of the East Coast Crips gang, who have long criminal records, received between 32 and 40 years in federal prison after their arrests in 1992.
During a search of their two apartments on East 62nd Street in Los Angeles, federal and local officers seized a cache of firearms, including an AK-47 assault rifle, along with two kilograms of powder cocaine and 66 grams of crack at various stages of preparation for sale.
Despite big cases like this, critics say federal authorities, overall, have fallen far short of their mission to apprehend the most vicious crack dealers, for whom the stiff federal penalties were intended.
In 1986, Congress set minimum five-year sentences for anyone convicted of distributing at least five grams of crack--an amount weighing the same as a 25-cent piece and worth a few hundred dollars on the street--and 10-year sentences involving more than 50 grams.
“Congress was supposed to send a message to go after the highest-level traffickers, but the results were the opposite of what was intended,” said attorney Eric E. Sterling, the president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation who served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee when the legislation passed.
Federal judges who regularly preside over drug cases have noticed with some dismay that relatively few major traffickers have been punished.
“Unfortunately, in this court’s experience, those high in the chain of drug distribution are seldom caught and seldom prosecuted,” said U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts in Los Angeles, as he gave a 10-year sentence to a young black man--a college graduate who had mailed a package containing crack.
In another Los Angeles case, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Gadbois lamented handing down a mandatory 10-year prison sentence to a welfare mother of four who was paid $52 to mail a package that, unbeknown to her, contained crack.
“This woman doesn’t belong in prison for 10 years for what I understand she did,” Gadbois said. “That is just crazy.”
Only eight cases out of 146 surveyed nationally by the U.S. Sentencing Commission two years ago involved high-level dealers. Another 45 were mid-level dealers. The vast majority--or 93--were filed against street-level pushers, bodyguards, lookouts and couriers.
In Los Angeles, federal authorities have estimated in court papers that they prosecute about 30 crack dealers a year. Some have histories of violence, gang membership and firearms violations. But others are bit players.
Of 70 crack convictions in the Los Angeles area during a five-year period, ending in 1992, 15 involved defendants charged with trafficking in less than 50 grams of crack, prosecutors have said. Those charged with large amounts included low-level couriers.
Many of them, defense attorneys contend, were hardly drug kingpins.
“We see street-level guys all the time who sell $20 doses [of crack],” said Maria E. Stratton, who heads the federal public defender’s office in Los Angeles. “They end up in federal court facing a massive amount of time. They don’t have gang affiliations. They don’t have firearms. They shouldn’t be here.”
In some cases, the dealers are solicited again and again by undercover agents until their sales reach the 50-gram threshold, triggering a 10-year mandatory prison term, defense attorneys say.
Defendants Gregory Jenkins and two others were solicited three times by undercover federal agents targeting a Compton auto repair shop, according to court records. An indictment accuses them of selling 6 grams the first time, 27 grams the second and 78 grams the third.
Though his co-defendants are accused of actually making the sales, Jenkins faces 10 years on a conspiracy charge for allegedly making incriminating statements, helping to place a phone call to a supplier and temporarily holding a bag of crack.
Federal authorities defend this technique, known as “bargaining-up,” saying it helps determine whether a dealer can deliver large amounts of crack.
Defense attorney Paul Rochmes, who moved unsuccessfully to dismiss the indictment against Jenkins, complained that only minorities are bargained-up by federal agents, and that whites arrested by local police are not. Police generally have no incentive to use the tactic because, in state court, trafficking in any amount of crack will qualify a suspect for a felony charge.
“The government should not be permitted to single out blacks and Hispanic defendants for such bargaining,” Rochmes argued in court pleadings, “while at the same time claiming that white defendants who traffic in small quantities of drugs are somehow ‘different’ and not worthy targets for federal prosecution.”
Federal agents say they have not staked out white neighborhoods or tried to bargain-up white crack dealers partly because, with much less effort, they can make many more arrests in the inner city.
Scholars and criminal justice experts agree that investigating white crack trafficking is difficult because the crack trade is more covert. Transactions typically occur, they say, in private rather than in open-air drug markets.
“The drug [crack] is being used in the suburbs, but it is hard to target and hard to identify the users and dealers,” said Lt. Bernie Larralde of the Los Angeles Police Department’s narcotics bureau, whose detectives belong to various federal drug task forces. “In the Rampart Division, I can take you to 20 corners where you can buy rock cocaine any time of the day.”
Critics such as Rochmes contend that it is a “cop-out” for law enforcement to say that white crack dealers are too hard to investigate.
“They do undercover operations in black areas,” said Rochmes, a former federal prosecutor. “Why can’t they do the same thing in the white community?”
Studies show that many whites use crack cocaine more than any other racial group, so it can be reasonably assumed that there are many white dealers, according to Steven R. Belenko, senior researcher for the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, a law enforcement think tank.
From 1988 to 1993, whites accounted for roughly two-thirds of all those who had ever tried crack cocaine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Among those considered the most frequent users, whites also accounted for the majority.
The pattern is similar in the city of Los Angeles, where NIDA surveys show that whites account for the majority of people who have used the drug. Of those considered to be the most frequent consumers, 34% were white, 26% were black and 40% were Latino.
More than a dozen white crack users interviewed by The Times at treatment centers across Los Angeles County said they often bought crack from white dealers. Some said they made and sold crack themselves but were never arrested.
One former crack dealer in long-term counseling at Impact House in Pasadena said her father was an oil company executive. She recalled smoking her first “rock” in a Cal State Northridge sorority house and exhausting a $200,000 trust fund within six months supporting her habit. She eventually became a dealer, she said, with an elite clientele on the Westside.
“You wouldn’t believe the customers I had,” the woman said. “Doctors, lawyers, business executives. . . . All of them were white. I’d cook up crack and take it to their homes. No one ever suspected we were base-heads.”
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Crack and the Courts
Although whites use crack cocaine more than any other racial group, they constitute a very small percentage of those prosecuted for crack offenses in federal court. No whites have been convicted in federal courts serving Los Angeles and six other counties. Whites here are generally prosecuted in state court, where sentences are a fraction of the federal penalties.
Who Uses Crack
From 1991 to 1993, far more whites nationwide said they had used crack cocaine than African-Americans and Latinos combined
Whites Blacks Latinos Estimated number who ever used crack: 2,282,000 789,000 307,000 Estimated number who used in previous year: 488,000 322,000 96,000
L.A. metro area
Whites Blacks Latinos Estimated number who ever used crack: 99,000 36,533 57,400 Estimated number who used in previous year: 13,800 10,633 16,400
Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Household Survey*
Who Gets Prosecuted
Federal Courts Nationwide
Although more whites than minorities use crack cocaine nationally, minorities account for at least 96% of the defendants prosecuted for crack offenses in federal courts nationwide.
White Minorities 1992 3% 97% 1993 4% 96% 1994 3.5% 96.5%
Federal Courts in Southern California
In the U.S. District Court serving Los Angeles County and six others, federal authorities have not prosecuted any whites for crack cocaine offenses through 1994:
White Minorities 1988-1994: 0% 100%
Sources: Records and files of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the federal public defender’s office, UCLA Prof. Richard Berk, U.S. Sentencing Commission.
State Courts in Southern Califronia
In state courts serving the Los Angeles region, whites account for between 4% and 5% of the defendants prosecuted for crack offenses. Though the percentages are small, they represent hundreds of Anglo defendants.
White Minorities 1988 5% 95% 1989 4% 96% 1990 4% 96% 1991 5% 95% 1992 4% 96%
Source: State Department of Justice, Offender Based Transaction Statistics which are available only through 1992.
NOTE: National Household Survey measures drug use among members of American households ages 12 and older, but excludes some people who have higher than normal percentages of drug use, including the homeless, people in jail and prison, or those with no permanent residence. The survey can miss large numbers of mobile, inner-city dwellers who may use drugs. 1993 is the latest year for which statistics are available. The Los Angeles metropolitan area was sampled only in 1991, 1992 and 1993.