Testimony to the United States Sentencing Commission

By Dr. Arthur Curry
March 23, 2000

Please allow me to thank you for this opportunity to testify before the Commission.

I consider it extremely significant that you understand first why I am not here. It is not my intent to point fingers or criticize judges and prosecutors, nor mock the Judiciary system of our country. My sole purpose today is to present my son's case to you as an example of why we must rethink the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act in general and specifically the disparity that exists between "powder" and "crack" cocaine sentencing laws.

In passing this Act, we have forced prosecutors to demonstrate their toughness on drugs and drug offenders by the number of convictions they get. This has meant, in many cases, referring cases normally heard in state courts to federal court, changing trials to a more favorable location for convictions, and using minor participants in an undercover capacity relative to other criminal investigations.

I must admit to you, however, that I am frustrated and sometimes angered by a democratic system that I defended and promoted as a soldier in Vietnam, as an educator, as a parent, and as a black male in America. I was raised to believe that this system worked for everyone, regardless of race, gender, age, or religion. Now for the first time in my life when I need to use that system, I have found it almost impossible to get an audience with any elected representative.

My son, Derrick A. Curry, was arrested on December 5, 1990, at the age of 19 and charged with one count of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, and one count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. He is the youngest of three children and my only son. His oldest sister is an accountant in Chicago and the other a recent graduate of Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh.

A complete background check was done by the F.B.I. and no evidence was found to support the contention that he was a major drug dealer. He owned no car; he drove an old Citation that belonged to his mother. He had no money and like most college students borrowed gas money routinely from his mother and me. He had no jewelry. He had no arrest record, nor any involvement with the law prior to this incident. On the other hand, despite having an I.Q. of 80, he was a second year student at Prince George's Community College working toward, of all things, a degree in criminal justice.

The F.B.I. had conducted an investigation involving twenty-eight individuals for over five years. By the prosecutors' own records, my son was a minor participant who was only involved the last six months of the investigation.

During the ensuing months, he was offered a plea agreement that called for him to plead guilty to the conspiracy count and agree to work in an undercover capacity in connection with other criminal investigations, in addition to other terms and conditions. In exchange, it would be recommended to the court that he be sentenced to 15 years. My son turned down the plea agreement for two reasons. He did not feel that he was guilty and he did not want work undercover.

Because of the large number of individuals involved and other legal implications, Derrick was tried separately. He also was the only one of the original twenty-eight defendants found guilty of the conspiracy. One can't help but wonder with whom did he conspire?

My son was sentenced on October 1, 1993, to 19 years and 7 months. However, he would have received a 10-year sentence, at best, if it was powdered cocaine. Then, not long after my son was sentenced, I read a commentary in the Washington Post written by federal prosecutor Jay Apperson. In it, Apperson described the subjective practices that exist when prosecutors decide who to charge, what to hold the individual accountable for, and whether or not to accept substantial assistance, or cooperation. According to the article, a woman was sentenced to 10 years in prison for her involvement in a drug conspiracy. After deciding later to cooperate, she served only 18 months. Does fairness, justice and equality of the law depend solely on the prosecutor one receives?

I must admit to you that I too sat and watched former President Bush address the nation on the drug problem. Without the facts, I too believed that crack was the worst evil to confront our nation - that something had to be done. Now we have the facts and something still must be done. With the facts, how can the penalty for crack be 100 times greater than that of powdered cocaine? Without powder cocaine there is no crack.

Past Sentencing Commissions have studied the crack and powder cocaine disparity and have recommended that the disparity be changed. I urge you to reflect on the original recommendations of the Sentencing Commission in this matter. Make sentences for crack and powder cocaine equal to current sentences for powder cocaine.

I am hopeful that you, as new Commissioners, will wipe the slate clean and finally resolve the nagging and unjust disparity between powder and crack cocaine. In addition, I hope that your solution will be retroactive - not only to aid my son, but to rebuild Americans' confidence in our justice system.