Pubdate: Wed, 16 Jan 2008
Source: Patriot Ledger, The  (Quincy, MA)
Copyright: 2008 The Patriot Ledger


It's possible to be tough on drug criminals without being soft on
common sense. For two decades, however, Congress' desire to appear
hard-nosed has run afoul of sense and fairness.

A law passed in 1986 - during the height of America's "war on drugs"
- - treats cocaine offenders drastically different, depending on what
form of the drug they have: powder or crack.

But criminals who sell five grams of crack, the weight of a couple
sugar packets, face the same sentence as dealers selling 500 grams of
powder cocaine.

This disparity has come under increased scrutiny and criticism from
legal, medical and policy experts, who say the laws are racist.
Indeed, in the 1980s powdered cocaine became popular among affluent
Americans, while considerably cheaper crack rocks found an audience of
abusers on urban streets. Even now, 85 percent of crack offenders
sentenced under federal law are black.

Two recent federal actions represent small steps toward narrowing the
sentencing gap.

First, the U.S. Sentencing Commission-- decided in November to cut the
range for crack offenses. First-time violators with five grams or more
of crack now face 51 to 63 months behind bars, instead of 63 to 78

Last month, the commission made the decision retroactive, meaning as
many as 19,000 federal prisoners could ask a judge for a sentencing

Second, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of judges to use
their judgment when sentencing federal drug offenders. The case before
the court involved a Gulf War veteran arrested in Virginia. It wasn't
the 90 grams of powder cocaine Derrick Kimbrough had that threatened
him with two decades of prison time; it was the 56 grams of crack he

Still, a district judge gave him a reduced sentence of 15 years,
noting that Kimbrough's case exemplified the "disproportionate and
unjust effect that crack cocaine guidelines have in

An appeals court overruled him. The high court, however, rightly
concluded that the original judge acted reasonably.

We appreciate why lawmakers cracked down on crack in the 1980s. It is
a potent, addictive, destructive variant of a known devil. But a
cocaine user is a cocaine user. The 100-to-1 ratio for powder cocaine
and crack users is so outrageous that it is absolutely fair to raise
questions of race and class.

We can argue all day about whether America is winning or losing its
war on drugs, though it does seem that these get-tough policies have
done little to deter the use of illegal narcotics. What should be
beyond debate is that America's judicial system must be just. These
cocaine laws are not; the penalties should be more equitable.

Your Views

Should cocaine powder users be sentenced the same as crack users? Tell
us why or why not.
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