Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A bipartisan group of four U.S. senators, all former state attorneys general, presented legislation yesterday to reduce the disparity in prison sentences for those caught with crack cocaine and those caught with powdered cocaine.

That disparity in federal sentencing guidelines is currently 100-to-1. It would be reduced to 20-to-1 under a measure introduced yesterday by Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ken Salazar of Colorado.

The Drug Sentencing Reform Act of 2006 would reduce the disparity by decreasing the amount of crack cocaine necessary to trigger the mandatory minimum sentencing and introducing a “modest increase on powders,” said Mr. Sessions, who presented a similar Senate bill in 2001.

Currently, possession of 500 grams of powdered cocaine results in a five-year mandatory minimum sentencing. It takes only 5 grams of crack cocaine to warrant a similar sentence. The senators propose shifting the sentencing amounts to 400 grams of powder and 20 grams of crack cocaine.

The bill would bring about “tougher sentences on the worst and most violent drug offenders and less severe sentences on lower-level, nonviolent offenders,” said Mr. Sessions, adding that the measure would shift the emphasis in sentencing from drug quantity to the type of criminal act committed in distributing drugs.

“This does not signal that we are going soft on crime,” Mr. Sessions told reporters yesterday. He said that “much crime is driven by drug use,” but that as a former federal prosecutor, he has “valid concerns in the disparity between crack and powder.”

Mr. Cornyn said his prior experience as attorney general of Texas showed him that “laws should be firm but fair. We not only need just laws, but they need the appearance and reality of fairness.”

The crack/powder sentencing disparity — which has resulted in higher incarceration rates for blacks convicted of drug crimes — long has been targeted by groups such as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 2000, more than 84 percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine distribution were black, while 9 percent were Hispanic and 5 percent were white. By contrast, 30 percent of those sentenced for powdered cocaine were black, 50 percent were Hispanic and 15 percent were white.

The senators are trying to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine, but not remove it.

“Crack is a more dangerous commodity,” Mr. Sessions said. Although powdered cocaine is usually snorted, crack is usually smoked. Mr. Sessions said crack is more addictive and causes more paranoia and violence than powdered cocaine.

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