Congress needs to weigh crack's risks in reforming drug sentencing

Thursday, October 29, 2009

IN THE 1980s, entire communities were devastated by the addiction and violence that accompanied crack, a smokable form of cocaine. Congress reacted by passing extraordinarily tough laws, including one that mandated a minimum prison sentence of five years for those in possession of as little as five grams of crack. Those arrested with 50 grams were automatically slapped with a 10-year sentence.

This supposed solution, backed at the time by many in the Congressional Black Caucus, turned out to be destructive also. Tens of thousands of black men -- many of them first-time offenders with no history of violent crime -- found themselves behind bars for inordinately long periods. White and Hispanic offenders -- those most often collared for powder cocaine violations -- had to be caught with 100 times the amount of powder to trigger the same mandatory minimum sentences.

Congress and the Obama administration seem poised to make a serious effort to correct this gross injustice, and they deserve credit for doing so. But the debate must not ignore evidence of the heightened dangers of addiction and violence posed by crack.

The Justice Department has announced its support for reducing crack penalties to mirror exactly those for powder. A bill recently introduced by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) would codify this 1-to-1 ratio into law. Supporters of such a move point to the racial disparities between arrests for crack and powder, and argue that anything less than parity would be viewed by African Americans as a decision to continue targeting black men for tougher sentences. They also note that studies have shown that the addictive nature of crack has been significantly exaggerated and that no other drug carries with it different penalties depending on how it is consumed.

But appearances alone cannot justify the move contemplated by the Justice Department and the Durbin bill. A 2007 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that smoking crack delivers a faster, more intense high than snorting powder and that this high is more short-lived, thus compelling most crack users to seek additional doses of the drug. The differences in addiction rates between crack and powder are not enormous, but they are real, and the study also notes that crack users often experience faster rates of physical deterioration than do those who consume powder. The report notes that roughly one-fourth of crack offenders are associated with violence, and that this rate exceeds that for powder cocaine offenders. As in the 1980s, predominantly African American communities continue to bear the brunt of the crime and addiction brought on by this awful drug.

These facts suggest that there should be some difference in the penalties for crack and powder cocaine, but how much? This is a difficult question to answer with precision, so perhaps the best solution would be to eliminate the mandatory minimums for both crack and powder and build into the sentencing guidelines tougher penalty ranges for crack that judges could apply on a case-by-case basis.

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