Pubdate: Mon, 27 Nov 2006
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2006 The Advertiser Co.
Note: Letters from the newspaper's circulation area receive publishing priority
Author: Ben Evans
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


WASHINGTON -- Congress is headed toward adjournment again this year 
without acting on what is widely viewed as an indefensible sentencing 
disparity between federal drug offenses involving crack and powder cocaine.

Although nearly everyone agrees that the uneven treatment the two 
drugs receive under federal sentencing laws is unfair, Democrats and 
Republicans have been locked in a stalemate for more than a decade 
over the proper fix.

That stalemate, unlikely to break before Democrats regain control of 
Congress, has left in place a system that frequently sends black, 
inner-city defendants to jail for more than a decade over quantities 
of crack that would fetch far shorter sentence for powder-cocaine offenders.

"It can't be sustained on public policy arguments," said Sen. Jeff 
Sessions, an Alabama Republican and former federal prosecutor who has 
co-sponsored a bill to address the issue since 2001. "Congress has 
mandated these sentences, and we should constantly monitor what we 
did and adjust it for fairness."

Sessions' bill has stalled because many Democrats believe it doesn't 
go far enough to address the problem, and could in part aggravate it.

Under the current law, passed amid the crack epidemic of the 1980s, 
trafficking in 5 grams of crack cocaine -- about the weight of a 
nickel -- calls for a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence. 
The same sentence for powder cocaine requires 500 grams.

Sessions' bill, which he plans to reintroduce next year, would 
increase the amount of crack triggering the five-year sentence from 5 
grams to 20 grams, while raising the trigger for an automatic 10-year 
sentence from 50 grams to 200 grams.

At the same time, the bill would lower the quantities of powder 
cocaine warranting such sentences, from 500 grams to 400 grams for a 
five-year sentence and from 5 kilograms to 4 kilograms for a 10-year sentence.

Although Sessions' bill has two Democratic co-sponsors, many 
Democrats say it would perpetuate significant inequities while 
creating more arbitrary and unnecessarily long sentences for powder 
cocaine offenders. With backing from the legal community, Democrats 
instead have called for further reducing the mandatory sentences or 
for getting rid of mandatory minimums for drug offenses altogether 
and giving judges more discretion.

With Democrats taking control of Congress, incoming Senate Judiciary 
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and fellow committee 
Democrats will likely take up the issue soon, said Tracy Schmaler, 
Leahy's spokeswoman. But with narrow majorities in both the House and 
Senate, it remains unclear whether any of the Democratic proposals could pass.

Law enforcement groups as well as the Justice Department continue to 
argue that stiffer penalties for crack are warranted because of the 
drug's strong connection with violent crime in poor neighborhoods.

"There's violence associated with both, but the nature of the way 
crack cocaine is retailed lends it to a higher degree of local street 
violence than powder cocaine does," said Jim Pasco, executive 
director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, which supports 
raising penalties for powder cocaine to balance the sentencing gap.

Sessions acknowledged that many of his colleagues are wary of 
appearing soft on crime by reducing penalties.

But critics of the current system, including many federal judges and 
legal groups such as the American Bar Association, argue that it is 
devastating inner-city neighborhoods -- more than 80 percent of the 
crack offenders are black -- while clogging federal prisons with 
low-level drug dealers.

In testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission earlier this 
month, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, a former deputy drug 
czar for the first President Bush, called the disparity "unconscionable."

The commission, an independent agency created by Congress to monitor 
federal sentencing laws, has recommended changes to the current 
structure three times since 1995, including an initial recommendation 
to eliminate the disparity by lowering crack sentences.

The commission is again reviewing the disparity.

According to the commission, 25,762 drug offenders were prosecuted 
under the federal sentencing laws in 2005. Almost half of those cases 
involved crack or powder cocaine.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman