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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

When people talk about sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, there's a ratio that often comes up - one to 100. Sentencing guidelines treat one gram of crack the same as 100 grams of powder cocaine. So crack users can get much longer prison sentences than powder users. That disparity has been the subject of heated debate for more than a decade. Today the debate resumed at the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this report.

ARI SHAPIRO: When cocaine comes into the U.S., it crosses the border in powder form. The powder travels from a smuggler to a wholesaler to a dealer, divided from kilos into ounces into grams. And then, in a recipe you'll never see on The Food Network, a dealer puts the powder into a microwave oven with other ingredients.

(Soundbite of microwave)

SHAPIRO: And out come rocks of crack. Attorney David Debold, who spoke on behalf of defense lawyers, told the Sentencing Commission that that simple conversion has an enormous impact on the prison sentence for the guy caught holding the bag.

Mr. DAVID DEBOLD (Attorney): Now should the guidelines recommend such disparate treatment of two defendants - one who handles the drug in powder form and the other who handles it later when it's in rock form?

SHAPIRO: 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 is the U.S. attorney for Miami. He said the Justice Department is willing to discuss changing the sentencing guidelines, but he described reasons he thinks crack merits harsher punishments than powder.

Mr. ALEX ACOSTA (U.S. Attorney, Miami): The strong federal sentencing guidelines presently available represent one of the best tools for law enforcement's efforts to stop violent crime. Attempts to reduce these sentences create a risk, in my opinion, of increased drug violence.

SHAPIRO: 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 said these rules have a disproportionate impact on poor black and Latino communities.

Ms. CARMEN HERNANDEZ (National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers): And that, I think, is a terrible symbol of the racial and socioeconomic inequalities that are present in our criminal justice system at all levels.

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

Mr. STEVE SALZBURG (American Bar Association): Well, maybe the place to talk is with the judiciary committees in the Congress with the commission being present, with the department being present and some of the same people who are saying we need change.

SHAPIRO: Senator Jeff Sessions, who's considered 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 one to 20 to one.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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