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House can reduce powder cocaine vs. crack sentencing disparity

Wednesday, July 21, 2010; A18

HARSH PENALTIES for crack cocaine were introduced in the 1980s, when the harm wrought by the drug became apparent, particularly in the nation's urban centers and minority neighborhoods. Drug use was soaring, thanks to the drug's low price and its quick and pitiless ability to grab the user by the throat. Crime and violence also spiked as competing gangs tried to defend their drug turf. It was understandable, then, that Congress, including many in the Congressional Black Caucus, sought to discourage the drug's proliferation through tough criminal penalties. As it turns out, they were too tough and counterproductive.

Possession of five grams of crack cocaine -- the weight of two pennies -- triggered a mandatory minimum sentence of five years; possession of 50 grams of crack called for a 10-year mandatory minimum. Defendants arrested on powder cocaine charges would face similar penalties only if they were caught with 100 times those amounts. It soon became apparent that these numerical disparities carried racial implications: Those arrested for crack were largely African American, while those hit with more lenient powder cocaine penalties were usually white or Hispanic.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 brings fairness and sanity to this 20-year saga. The bill, which the House is expected to take up soon, eliminates a mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession -- an important achievement in and of itself. An offender would have to be convicted of peddling 28 grams or more of crack to be hit with a five-year mandatory sentence. A 10-year prison term would be handed down for 280 grams or more. The disparity between crack and powder would be reduced -- from the current 100:1 to roughly 18:1 -- but not eliminated. This is an important acknowledgment that crack, because of its addictive properties and its ability to quickly destroy the user's health, is different from powder cocaine and deserves reasonably tougher penalties. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that shorter periods of incarceration would save the federal prison system some $42 million over five years. This is a small amount of money, but it is a welcome consequence of restoring a modicum of fairness to a broken part of the criminal justice system.

The bill has garnered support from Republican and conservative leaders such as Asa Hutchinson, former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union, as well as from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The Senate unanimously passed the measure in the spring. It is time for the House to embrace it as well.

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