Senate Debates Disparity in Cocaine Laws


Washington—Under current law, the punishments for possession or sale of crack cocaine versus the punishments for possessing or selling powdered cocaine are widely disparate. Critics of the laws surrounding cocaine and other drugs have long argued that this disparity is racially motivated. Now a Senate panel, urged on by President Obama, will debate the issue.

More than 81% of those who were convicted for crack-related offenses in 2007 were African-American, although that population only accounts for about one-quarter of crack-cocaine users.

In 1985, during the epidemic of crack trafficking, use and other related crimes, such as theft and homicide, Congress enacted the current laws dealing with crack offenders. Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the Democrat who now chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the matter, said that this law was in error.

It takes 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack to reach minimum mandatory sentences under the law. Five grams of crack cocaine is punishable by the same sentence as half a kilogram of powder.

Critics say that law enforcement efforts should focus more on drug trafficking networks, like Mexican cartels whose crimes extend to violence, rather than on individuals in the United States. They may benefit more from drug treatment programs, as well as post-incarceration job training or other rehabilitation programs.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer called for Congress to eradicate the difference between the two forms of cocaine and the punishments related to them. “A growing number of citizens view it as fundamentally unfair,” testified Breuer.

Jurors are sometimes reluctant to serve in crack cases, because they disagree with the disparity in sentencing.

The move by many states, and their representatives, to lighten the sentences given to crack-cocaine offenders, is an unusual one. Many politicians clamp down on drug offenders in order to curry favor with the public. But some states have recently been moving in the other direction; New York leaders recently decided to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws, once some of the country’s toughest laws on drugs. Missouri and Kentucky, as well as other states, are implementing changes that will help treat and rehabilitate addicts, rather than simply incarcerate them.

The Justice Department is currently crafting recommendations for new cocaine violation sentences. Until such changes are implemented under the law, Breuer said that federal prosecutors may encourage judges to look at each drug-crime case individually, and to use their discretion in sentencing.


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