Pubdate: Thu, 30 Apr 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Author: Carrie Johnson, Washington Post Staff Writer


Justice Department officials yesterday endorsed for the first time a 
plan that would eliminate vast sentencing disparities between 
possession of powdered cocaine and rock cocaine, an inequity that 
civil rights groups say has affected poor and minority defendants 

Lanny A. Breuer, the new chief of the criminal division, told a 
Senate Judiciary subcommittee that the Obama administration would 
support bills to equalize punishment for offenders convicted of 
possessing the drug in either form, fulfilling one of the president's 
campaign pledges.

Breuer explicitly called on Congress to act this term to "completely 
eliminate" the sentencing disparity.

The issue has received attention from both political parties, but 
until now, top law enforcement officials have not backed legislative 
reforms, according to drug control analysts.

"Now is the time for us to reexamine federal cocaine sentencing 
policy, from the perspective of both fundamental fairness and 
safety," Breuer told the subcommittee on crime and drugs. He said the 
issues would be among those considered by a Justice Department panel 
that within six months is to develop recommendations on an array of 
topics related to charging, sentencing and prisoner treatment.

Bipartisan groups of lawmakers in the House and Senate have 
introduced measures to equalize sentences, but the proposals have 
stalled in the past.

The sentencing inequality has come to be known as the "100 to 1" 
ratio, in which possession of five grams of crack, the weight of two 
small sugar cubes, triggers a mandatory five-year prison term, while 
a person carrying 500 grams of powder cocaine would receive the same sentence.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the 
subcommittee, noted that more than half of federal inmates are locked 
up for drug-related crimes, including high ratios of African American 
offenders. In 2007, Durbin said, 82 percent of people convicted on 
crack possession charges were black, and 9 percent were white.

"These racial disparities profoundly undermine trust in our criminal 
justice system and have a deeply corrosive effect on the relationship 
between law enforcement and minority communities," Durbin said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she was convinced that the 
sentencing ratio for crack cocaine possession needed to be adjusted 
but was not certain that the new penalties should be the same as for 
powdered cocaine. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake