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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

And I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Here's a question: What weighs two pounds and arrives today? The U.S. Sentencing Commission's new report to Congress on federal cocaine sentencing policy, of course. The report calls on Congress to reduce the extremely tough penalties for federal crack-cocaine crimes once and for all. That is an old story. What's new is that the commission is doing what it can on its own authority.

NPR's Libby Lewis explains.

LIBBY LEWIS: In the Byzantine world of federal sentencing law, sometimes it's hard to grasp the bottom line. You need somebody like Doug Berman. He's a law professor at Ohio State and he has a real passion for federal sentencing guidelines. He's excited by the changes the U.S. Sentencing Commission wants to make in crack-cocaine sentences. So excited, he mixes his metaphors.

Professor DOUG BERMAN (Law, Ohio State University): Everyone has been saying it's been a problem for over 10 years, and nothing's been done. And so in the wilderness, any little bit of an oasis is so exciting. I guess we got to do the desert rather than the wilderness there.

LEWIS: 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. Someone who's charged with holding 5 grams of crack faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years with no parole. Five grams of crack is about 10 to 50 doses. By contrast, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine - that's 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 100:1 ratio; only Congress can.

What the commission can do is change its own guidelines for sentences above the minimum. The commission's changes would reduce the average sentence for crack cocaine offense from a little over 10 years to a little under nine 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 Berman sees it differently. He thinks it reflects a shift in the political climate that could lead to bigger changes.

Prof. BERMAN: And what they've done for a number of years is say to Congress, you ought to change things, and as soon as you change things, we'll follow in line. What makes this new guideline amendment so important is they're saying we're going to start changing things. We want you to come along with us, rather than simply say, Congress, we want you to change it, and as soon as you get around to doing something, we'll follow in line.

SEABROOK: Jeff Sessions says he does hope Congress follows along. He's the Republican senator from Alabama who co-sponsored a bill to reduce the disparity between crack- and powder-cocaine sentences to 20:1.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): It's past time actually, because the penalties on crack cocaine are extraordinarily heavy - too heavy I think to be justified as a matter of public policy.

SEABROOK: Sessions said his colleagues should be open to reducing penalties downward when the sentencing commission recommends it. Usually, he said, we just raise them.

Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.

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