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March 2007
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Reforming Cocaine Sentencing Guidelines

Good news. Some members of Congress have finally stopped being scared wimps long enough to actually acknowledge that the sentencing disparities between the two forms of cocaine are unfair and unjust.

In the Senate, Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama is drawing bipartisan support for his proposal to ease crack sentences.
“I believe that as a matter of law enforcement and good public policy that crack cocaine sentences are too heavy and can’t be justified,” Sessions says. “People don’t want us to be soft on crime, but I think we ought to make the law more rational.”

So far, so good. So what’s the plan?

Sessions’ bill would lessen the sentencing disparity by increasing punishments for powder cocaine and decreasing them for crack. Crimes involving crack would still draw stiffer sentences, but the difference would not be as dramatic.

Hmmm, maybe I should take back the part about them no longer being scared wimps. The only way to reduce an unjustly harsh penalty is by increasing another harmful harsh penalty? Give me a break.
Of course even this extremely wimpy reform attempt has drawn fire:

“We believe the current federal sentencing policy and guidelines for crack cocaine offenses are reasonable,” Justice spokesman Dean Boyd says.
Higher penalties for crack offenses reflect its greater harm, he says, adding that crack traffickers are more likely to use weapons and have more significant criminal histories than powder cocaine dealers.

For a good analysis of the situation, check out Seeking Justice in the Drug War by Marc Mauer and Kara Gotsch at Tom Paine. The article concludes:

An alternative to Sessions’ bill was introduced in January by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. His legislation would equalize the penalties for powder and crack cocaine by raising the quantity of crack that triggers a five-year mandatory sentence to 500 grams. This approach would eliminate the unjustified disparity in sentences for crack and powder and reduce the number of low-level drug offenders sentenced to harsh mandatory minimum sentences. Such a proposal deserves serious consideration by Congress.
With champions for criminal justice reform like Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., heading the judiciary committees in Congress, the opportunity to redress the misguided crack sentencing policy is upon us. Hearings before both committees are long overdue in this arena and would provide the necessary evidence to dispel the misinformation and hysteria that clouded the public debate on crack cocaine in the past. These myths have done a disservice to developing responsible drug policy, while exacerbating the tragic racial disparities that plague our prison system. Now is the time for congressional attention and action.

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