Lawmakers Consider Less Crack Penalties

Congress finally looks to address the crack/powder sentencing disparity. However, Reason Magazine reports that Sessions’ bill would reduce crack penalties and increase powder penalties. Let’s hope that the legislative process brings a little sanity. Does anyone really think that we’re too lenient with powder cocaine penalties?

Momentum is building in Congress to ease crack cocaine sentencing guidelines, which the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics say have filled prisons with low-level drug dealers and addicts whose punishments were much worse than their crimes.

Federal prison sentences for possessing or selling crack have far exceeded those for powder cocaine for two decades. House Crime Subcommittee chairman Robert Scott, D-Va., a longtime critic of such sentencing policies, plans to hold hearings on crack sentences this year. 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.”

The mandatory federal sentencing guidelines passed by Congress in 1986 require a judge to impose the same sentence for possession of 5 grams of crack as for 500 grams of powder cocaine: five years in prison.

“We’re going to address all the mandatory minimums,” said Scott, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. “The crack cocaine is probably the most egregious because of its draconian number of years for relatively small amounts.”

Opposition to weaker sentences has come from police, prosecutors and law enforcement agencies such as the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“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.

“Congress thought by having very harsh sentences, it would deter the spread of crack into the inner cities and around the country,” Sessions says. “The truth is, it didn’t stop it. It spread very rapidly. Now we need to ask ourselves, what is the right sentence for this bad drug. I think it’s time to adjust. I think it’s past time to do this.”