- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

The U.S. Sentencing Commission yesterday advised Congress to set up a "more humane and rational" balance in prison terms for selling crack cocaine and trafficking in powder, wading into a controversy that has triggered federal prison riots.
"While greater punishment for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine is clearly warranted, the current 100-to-1 drug-quantity ratio between the two forms of cocaine is not appropriate," the bipartisan commission said by an 7-0 vote when recommending changes in the sentencing laws.
Current law requires a mandatory five-year federal term when the amount of crack cocaine exceeds 5 grams, which the Drug Enforcement Administration says sells for $400 to $500 on D.C. streets, or where there is more than 500 grams of powder cocaine, worth $7,500 to $14,000 here, depending on purity and quality.
The 10-year minimum sentence applies to 50 grams or more of crack cocaine, less than 2 ounces, or 5,000 grams, or 11 pounds, of powder.
Blacks argue the sentence discriminates against them as the minority most likely to use crack cocaine, a belief that spurred widespread rioting in federal prisons in 1995. Congress and President Clinton blocked an effort to equalize sentencing while 70 of the nation's 84 federal prisons were under total lockdown to stop those riots.
In fiscal 2000, the courts gave 5,111 crack defendants sentences averaging 10 years, while 4,708 powder-cocaine prisoners got sentences averaging about 6 years.
Yesterday's unprecedented recommendation disclosed no official proposal for a new sentencing structure and is not binding. But Commission Chairman Diana E. Murphy said the panel will seek no less than a fivefold increase in the amount of crack that qualifies for a mandatory prison sentence.
"This is different. This is a big deal that is in a class by itself," said one source familiar with how the Sentencing Commission and Congress interact.
A fivefold increase in the lowest rung would keep offenders from being subjected to mandatory minimums of five years unless they trafficked crack cocaine in amounts the Drug Enforcement Administration says now sell on D.C. streets for more than $2,000.
"The Sentencing Commission chooses to bring light rather than heat to this subject in order to seek appropriate change," the panel said of the concept the Bush administration opposed just last month.
Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson testified then that the administration supports the cocaine-sentencing structure set up in the 1986 "Drug Abuse Act." The deliberate disparity based on the inordinate amount of violence linked to crack remains appropriate and should not be changed, Mr. Thompson said.
Judge Murphy, a federal appeals judge from Minneapolis, gave no indication what other changes the commission would advise in that sentencing scheme, but a full report is expected to go to Congress by mid-May.
Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah jointly already have proposed a bill to narrow the sentencing disparity.
Arguments against continuing the disparity maintain that the amounts of crack that now trigger mandatory minimums of five years are recreational amounts, less than one-fifth of an ounce, while well over a pound of powder is required.
Raising the lowest level above amounts for personal use would leave a disparity for mandatory minimums of 20-1 between powder and crack.

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