Obama Seeks to Change Crack Sentences
April 29, 2009The Obama administration is asking Congress to close the big gap in prison sentences for dealing crack versus powdered cocaine, a law that critics say is unfair to blacks.
Such sentencing reform efforts tend to focus on lowering the mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine possession, but in prepared testimony to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer did not spell out exactly how the administration hopes to make the law fairer.
"The administration believes Congress' goal should be to completely eliminate the disparity in prison sentences between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine," Breuer said in written testimony to be delivered Wednesday.
Federal law now has what lawyers call a "100-to-1" ratio for cocaine sentences, in which a person selling five grams of crack faces the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as someone selling 500 grams of powder cocaine.
Critics of the law say it unfairly punishes black offenders, pointing to statistics showing 82 percent of federal crack cocaine convicts were black, while nine percent were white.
President Barack Obama had called for such a change while campaigning for the White House.
Breuer said the government should focus on punishing drug trafficking networks, like the cartels wreaking havoc in Mexico, and those whose crimes include acts of violence.
The Obama administration is also seeking to increase drug treatment, as well as rehabilitation programs for felons after they're released from prison.
While politicians often support laws lengthening prison terms for various crimes, it is rarer to try to reduce sentences, in part out of concern they may appear soft on crime. But recently, some states have been moving on their own to temper long-standing "get tough" laws.
In New York last month, state leaders reached an agreement to repeal the last vestiges of the Rockefeller drug laws, once seen as the harshest in the nation. Kentucky enacted changes that would put more addicts in treatment, and fewer behind bars.
The Justice Department is working on recommendations for a new set of sentences for cocaine, and Breuer urged Congress to overhaul the current law, written in 1986 at the height of public concern about crack use.
Since then, Breuer argued, prosecutors' views of crack cocaine has evolved to a more "refined understanding" of crack and powdered cocaine usage.
He also suggested that until such changes are made, federal prosecutors may encourage judges to use their discretion to depart from the current sentencing guidelines. Such departures are rare in the federal courts.
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