Sentencing Panel Changes Crack Recommendation

The U.S. Sentencing Commission's new report on federal cocaine sentencing policy was delivered to Congress on Tuesday. The report calls on Congress to once and for all reduce the tough penalties for federal crack-cocaine crimes.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has been pushing Congress for more than a decade to change the law that created mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine. Now the commission is doing what it can on its own authority to recommend shorter sentences for most federal crack-cocaine offenses.

Currently, someone charged with holding 5 grams of crack — that's 10 to 50 doses — faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years with no parole. By contrast, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine — more than 2,500 doses — to get that same sentence.

It's been that way since 1987.

The sentencing commission can't change the mandatory minimums that created that 100 to 1 ratio; only Congress can.

But the commission can change its own guidelines for sentences above the minimum. The commission's changes would reduce the average sentence from a little more than 10 years to a little under 9 years. The changes would affect thousands of defendants a year.

Many advocacy groups said they were disappointed with the news. They were hoping for more.

But Doug Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University who follows federal sentencing law, says it reflects a shift in the political climate and that it could lead to bigger changes.

"What they've done for a number of years is say to Congress, 'You ought to change things.' What makes this guideline amendment so important is they're saying, 'We're going to start changing things ... we'll follow in line," Berman says.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) says he hopes that's the case. He has co-sponsored a bill to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences — to 20 to 1.

"It's past time actually," Sessions says. "Because the penalties on crack cocaine are extraordinarily heavy — too heavy to be justified as public policy."

Sessions said his colleagues should be open to reducing penalties downward when the sentencing commission recommends it.

Usually, he says, we just raise them.

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