Sentencing Crack-down

An editorial in the Washington Post applauds new guidelines drafted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission for offenses related to possession of crack cocaine. These more lenient sentences bring the penalties for crack cocaine closer to parity with those for powder cocaine, although still subject to mandatory minimum sentences.

These statutes mandate a five-year sentence for someone caught with five grams of crack; an offender would have to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same sentence. There are good arguments for why crack should carry tougher sentences than powder cocaine, including the fact that crack is ferociously addictive and destructive. But a 100-to-1 disparity is irrational. Lawmakers should act quickly on one of the several bills pending in Congress that would narrow that gap.

The deliberations on this subject were featured in an earlier article by the Washington Post, which noted the effect that current guidelines have on sentencing disparities.

The commission is taking up one of the most racially sensitive issues of the two-decades-old war on drugs. Jurists and civil rights organizations have long complained that the commission’s guidelines mandate more stringent federal penalties for crack cocaine offenses, which usually involve African Americans, than for crimes involving powder cocaine, which generally involve white people. The chemical properties of the drugs are the same, though crack is potentially more addictive.

The Sentencing Law and Policy blog notes that some members of Congress have expressed their opposition to making these guidelines retroactive, and has posted a letter from some members of the House Judiciary Committee to that effect.

The Bush administration also opposes making these new guidelines retroactive, citing the potential to place additional burden on the judicial system and to jeopardize public safety. But, this problem is, at its core, a public health issue. Rather than fighting a war against its own citizens, it’s time to confront the root causes – whether cultural, socioeconomic, or educational – that contribute to the abuse of crack cocaine and spawn a vast criminal enterprise.

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