Cocaine Sentences: Level The Field 

Cocaine Sentences: Level The Field 
Posted by FoM on December 03, 1999 at 07:14:41 PT
Source: LA Times
America's war on drugs has filled federal prisons to bursting. More than 20% of federal inmates are low-level and first-time drug offenders, most with no history of violence.
Drug crimes should certainly be punished, but Congress has gone way overboard with its harsh and inequitable drug-sentence regimes. Now it stands in danger of doing even more damage. Federal law imposes mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes, leaving no room for judicial discretion and no possibility of parole. The disparities built into these sentencing laws have left the perception of racial discrimination in their application.   For example, anyone convicted of possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine draws a mandatory five-year prison term. For offenders found with crack cocaine, a different form of the drug but with the same active ingredients, possession of just five grams draws the mandatory five-year-minimum sentence.   This 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine sprang from congressional concern about the violence associated with the crack trade. In practice, however, because crack has been more prevalent in minority communities, 96% of those prosecuted for crack possession are black or Latino. Federal statistics find that African Americans constitute 17% of all cocaine users but receive 55% of all federal drug convictions. This appearance of racial disparity undermines the credibility of the justice system.   Modest efforts over the years to eliminate or reduce the disparity by raising the amount of crack that subjects an offender to the harsh, five-year-minimum sentence have failed. Now comes Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) with an absurd proposal: His proposed Powder Cocaine Sentencing Act of 1999 would cut the 100-to-1 disparity to 10 to 1 by reducing the amount of powder cocaine necessary to trigger the mandatory minimum sentence from 500 to 50 grams. The result would sweep even more low-level drug offenders into prison, suck in more tax dollars to house them and leave even less money for drug treatment and prevention.   Low-level crack felons already serve an average of 10 years and six months behind bars, a sentence 59% longer than that meted out to convicted rapists and only 18% shorter than that served by convicted murderers.   Last month the Senate narrowly voted to attach Hatch's measure to the Bankruptcy Reform Act, a larger piece of legislation still pending in Congress and likely to be taken up again next year.   Wiser measures, stalled in the House, would equalize the disparity by raising the amount of crack rather than cutting the amount of powder that triggers the five-year minimum and would give back to judges some of the sentencing discretion they need to make the punishment fit the crime. Congress should have the political courage to deal with this inequity in a fair and humanitarian way. Thursday, December 2, 1999 Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times Related Articles & Web Site:Families Against Mandatory Minimums Stiffens Cocaine Sentencing - 11/10/99 Adopts Measure To Reduce Cocaine Disparity - 11/10/99 
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