Panel Weighs Equity of Crack, Cocaine Sentences

U.S. sentencing guidelines treat 1 gram of crack the same as 100 grams of powder cocaine. So crack users can get much longer prison sentences than powder users. For more than 10 years, that disparity has been the subject of heated debate. The U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering the 20-year-old law in public hearings.

When cocaine comes into the United States, it crosses the border in powder form. The powder travels from a smuggler to a wholesaler to a dealer, divided from kilograms into ounces, and then into grams.

Then a dealer puts the powder into a microwave oven with other ingredients, and creates rocks of crack cocaine.

Attorney David Debold, who spoke on behalf of defense lawyers, told the sentencing commission that simple conversion has an enormous impact on the prison sentence for the guy caught holding the bag.

"Should the guidelines recommend such disparate treatment of two defendants," Debold says, "one who handles the drug in powder form, and the other one who handles it later in rock form?"

In the past, the sentencing commission has said the punishments should not be so different. But Congress has never enacted the commission's recommendations before.

Alex Acosta, the U.S. attorney for Miami, says the Justice Department is willing to discuss changing the sentencing guidelines. But he said he believes crack merits harsher punishments than powder.

The strong federal sentencing guidelines presently available represent one of the best tools for law enforcement's efforts to stop violent crime," Acosta says. "Attempts to reduce these sentences create a risk in my opinion of increased drug violence."

He said crack dealers are more likely to be parts of violent drug gangs. Women who use crack are more likely to become prostitutes. And he said crack is more potent and addictive than powder cocaine.

Carmen Hernandez spoke on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She believes the rules have a disproportionate impact on poor black and Latino communities.

"That, I think, is a terrible symbol," Hernandez says, "of the racial and socioeconomic inequalities that are present in our criminal justice system at all levels."

Several commissioners asked witnesses to describe the way forward. Stephen Saltzburg of the American Bar Association replied that he's encouraged by the fact that the Justice Department is willing to talk.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, considered to be one of the most conservative members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has already introduced a bill on the subject. It would reduce the crack/powder cocaine sentencing ratio from 100-to-1 to 20-to-1.

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