Justice Department Backs Plan to Eliminate Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 2009

Justice Department officials yesterday endorsed for the first time a plan that would eliminate vast sentencing disparities between possession of powdered cocaine and rock cocaine, an inequity that civil rights groups say has affected poor and minority defendants disproportionately.

Lanny A. Breuer, the new chief of the criminal division, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that the Obama administration would support bills to equalize punishment for offenders convicted of possessing the drug in either form, fulfilling one of the president's campaign pledges.

Breuer explicitly called on Congress to act this term to "completely eliminate" the sentencing disparity.

The issue has received attention from both political parties, but until now, top law enforcement officials have not backed legislative reforms, according to drug control analysts.

"Now is the time for us to reexamine federal cocaine sentencing policy, from the perspective of both fundamental fairness and safety," Breuer told the subcommittee on crime and drugs. He said the issues would be among those considered by a Justice Department panel that within six months is to develop recommendations on an array of topics related to charging, sentencing and prisoner treatment.

Bipartisan groups of lawmakers in the House and Senate have introduced measures to equalize sentences, but the proposals have stalled in the past.

The sentencing inequality has come to be known as the "100 to 1" ratio, in which possession of five grams of crack, the weight of two small sugar cubes, triggers a mandatory five-year prison term, while a person carrying 500 grams of powder cocaine would receive the same sentence.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the subcommittee, noted that more than half of federal inmates are locked up for drug-related crimes, including high ratios of African American offenders. In 2007, Durbin said, 82 percent of people convicted on crack possession charges were black, and 9 percent were white.

"These racial disparities profoundly undermine trust in our criminal justice system and have a deeply corrosive effect on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities," Durbin said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she was convinced that the sentencing ratio for crack cocaine possession needed to be adjusted but was not certain that the new penalties should be the same as for powdered cocaine.

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