Federal Sentencing Reform

Powerline blog has a story up today about the testimony that Heather Mac Donald offered to the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding sentencing reform.  Ms. Mac Donald has written extensively about racial profiling, and crime in the inner cities.  I have found that her writing reflects what I experienced working as a narcotics investigator targeting multi-ounce crack cocaine dealers in San Antonio, Texas throughout the 90’s and up until 2006. I will explain in three parts how (1) the crack cocaine trade operated in San Antonio (2) the evolution of investigative techniques, (3) The interaction of Federal and State law in advancing investigations.

Heather Mac Donald Explodes Criminal Justice Myths

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on proposed legislation to “reform” criminal sentencing by, inter alia, releasing large numbers of felons from federal prisons. The great Heather Mac Donald testified in opposition to the proposed changes. The video below, of her opening statement, is only around six minutes long, but it is an excellent introduction to the topic. Some notable quotes:

Drug enforcement was not the driving factor in the growth of the prison system. Violent crime was and is. Since 1999, violent offenders have accounted for all of the increase in the prison census, and they were the predominant factor before then.

Emphasis added.

The most dangerous misconception about our criminal justice system is that it is pervaded by racial bias. For decades, criminologists have tried to find evidence for that bias, and they have always come up short. In fact, racial differences in criminal offending account for all of the racial disproportionality of blacks in prison.

Scott and I are very familiar with this issue. Years ago, the Minnesota Supreme Court strained to find racial bias in Minnesota’s criminal system, unsuccessfully. Scott reviewed the raw data on which the court’s dishonest report was based, which demonstrated precisely the opposite proposition, and eviscerated its findings. But the myth, hyped by the establishment–including the ostensibly racist judges themselves!–nevertheless persisted.

It is crime, not incarceration, that squelches freedom and enterprise in urban areas.

Yes, and it was the Black Caucus that demanded harsher penalties for crack cocaine convictions. They were responding to their constituents.

The committee could provide an enormous public service if it could somehow rebut the myth that the criminal justice system is racist.

Amen. Here is Ms. Mac Donald, testifying earlier today:

I suppose the Democrats on the committee must have asked her some questions. That should have provided entertainment value. I haven’t seen video of that examination, but if I do, I will post it here.

I started working for a multiagency multijurisdictional narcotics task force in 1990.  It was comprised of officers seconded from agencies in the San Antonio metropolitan area.  We covered San Antonio and the surrounding counties. The theory being that drug dealers knew no boundaries while investigations by individual police departments stopped at the city limits. The multijurisdictional aspect of the task force eliminated those boundaries.

I started investigating multi-ounce crack dealers almost by accident.  It was not the least bit challenging to buy a $20 rock on the east side of San Antonio. Dealers stood in the street and flagged cars down.  Arrest one and another took his place.  Undercover operations were great numbers generators, an enterprising undercover (UC) could buy $20 rocks all day long.  What the UC couldn’t do was arrange a larger quantity buy in order to meet the next level dealer.  The presence or absence of a particular street dealer wasn’t even noticed.

I once sat down with a San Antonio Police Narc who had been very active making street buys. She had heard I was very active in the same area and that I was willing to compare notes. We did pretty well in identifying locations of concern.  But when we got to the “do you know” portion of the game we were both sorely disappointed.  I had never heard of any of the street level dealers that she was chasing and she had never heard of any of the cooks, distributors and multi-ounce runners that I was chasing. This was an indication of how effective compartmentalization worked.

Meanwhile the Bloods and Crypts were having running gun battles all over the eastside in an effort to secure and hold lucrative crack dealing corners.  It wasn’t unusual to pull into one popular drug dealing location and  see 20 or 30 dealers hawking their wares. Then a new species of armed robber appeared on the scene.  This individual sometimes working alone and other times as a team targeted crack dealers.  They would rob and sometimes kidnap crack dealers and demand a ransom of dope and cash for the dealer’s release. This added to the body count.

I  found myself in an interview room at the jail.  The inmate was on the chain, being transferred to state prison, the next day.  He started out by saying he didn’t want anything but had some stuff he wanted to get off his chest.  He spent the next three hours detailing how the crack cocaine trade worked in San Antonio, its origins, the kingpins, rivals, “jackers”, the structure of various organizations and the family and neighborhood ties that would enable dealers to enter into alliances or preclude any alliance, ever.

What I found out was that there was rampant racial profiling in the crack cocaine trade.  San Antonio was a major transhipment  point for cocaine HCL (powder) controlled by Mexicans.  Crack cocaine was controlled exclusively by black violators.  The Mexican drug dealers would not deal with the black crack dealers.  Every time a San Antonio crack dealer though he had made a breakthrough and found a local Mexican to deal with, it turned out the Mexican had a day job, as a San Antonio Police Narcotics Investigator.  Black crack dealers had to travel to Houston to buy cocaine from the Columbians.  The other oddity about San Antonio was that most of the crack dealers did not know how to make it.  So the source was doubly restricted a dealer had to have a Houston connection and then a cook who could perform the conversion.

The crack dealers and their runners, those handling ounce quantities, had either family, neighborhood or school connections going back to the third grade.  If the connection wasn’t there, then a deal didn’t take place.  The next level down were baby’s mama or former girlfriends.  These women were installed in houses close to the prime crack dealing neighborhoods.  Runners would drop by as often as need be to drop off ounce or less quantities of crack and pick up the cash. The public face of the crack dealers was anybody stupid enough to flag down cars to sell crack. Typically these street level dealers would have only four or five crack rocks.  The street dealer might interact with the women in the house, but not the runner.  There was a good chance the street dealer didn’t even know for whom he was working. Street level buys were a dead end that only contributed to the profits of the crack organization.

What is the difference between crack and cocaine?  First crack is a good value verses a similar quantity of cocaine HCL. A $20 rock of crack is .20 of a gram of crack, this is about the size of a pencil eraser and almost as durable. It is smoked which leads to the quickest and most intense high.  The high is relatively short lived.  A $20 quantity of cocaine HCL is also .20 grams possibly a little more.  It is typically snorted or ingested or inhaled through the nose, it can also be injected.  The high isn’t as high.  The other problem is waste, since it is powder, some of it will cling to the packages, some to the implements for ingestion, some to the nose or hair in the nose.  Typically cocaine HCL users are looking for street quantities referred to as a sixteenth 1/16 of an ounce (1.7 grams) or an eighball, 1/8 of an ounce (3.5 grams). Price starts at $85 and ranges to $175. The market is therefore limited.

Multi-ounce crack dealers were constantly on the move.  Unlike their clientele and downstream dealers they didn’t live on the eastside of San Antonio.  This was out of fear of the hijackers not the police.

Crack cocaine sales posed challenges not seen in other drug investigations.

  1. Sales were blatant and the open with street level dealers taking over neighborhood, street corners, retail businesses, and sometimes private residences.
  2. Competing sales organizations used threats, intimidation and violence in order to gain and maintain control of prime locations.
  3. Sales crews were compartmentalized with the lower level not knowing upper echelon managers.
  4. Organizations relied on family, neighborhood and school ties for basic operational security.
  5. Crack dealing organizations used “racial profiling” to avoid confrontations with law enforcement.
  6. The profit potential for crack is higher because the consumer cost is low attracting a larger volume of customers.