Panel: Drug laws should be more equal

WASHINGTON (AP) — A sentencing panel recommended keeping harsher federal penalties for selling crack cocaine but said the wide disparity in current sentencing laws should be reduced.
“Although research and public policy may support somewhat higher penalties for crack than for powder cocaine, a 100-to-1 quantity ratio cannot be justified,” the U.S. Sentencing Commission said on Tuesday in a report to Congress.
Federal law requires a five-year minimum sentence for people caught selling 5 or more grams of crack. However, someone convicted of trafficking powder cocaine would get the same sentence only if 500 grams or more were involved.
Noting that blacks make up almost 90 percent of those convicted in federal court of distributing crack, the commission said, “The current penalty structure results in a perception of unfairness and inconsistency.”
President Clinton and Congress rejected the sentencing commission’s 1995 recommendation to equalize penalties for trafficking in crack and powder cocaine.
But Clinton said on Tuesday that his administration will give the new recommendation very serious consideration.
“The sentencing laws must continue to reflect that crack cocaine is a more harmful form of cocaine,” the president said in a statement issued by the White House. “However, some adjustment to the cocaine penalty structure is warranted as a matter of sound criminal justice policy.”
Clinton said federal prosecutors should target mid- and high-level drug traffickers instead of low-level dealers. He said he has asked Attorney General Janet Reno and drug policy adviser Barry McCaffrey to review the proposal and report to him within 60 days.
The sentencing commission recommended that for crack cocaine, Congress raise the 5-gram trigger for a five-year mandatory sentence to somewhere between 25 and 75 grams. For powder cocaine, the 500-gram threshold for the same sentence should be lowered to a level between 125 and 375 grams, the panel said.
Penalties for selling other amounts of crack and powder should be similarly adjusted, the panel said.
And, it recommended reducing the penalty for simple possession of crack to the level now in effect for powder cocaine. Currently, a five-year sentence is required for possession of 5 or more grams of crack, while possession of powder in any amount is punishable by no more than one year in prison.
“All of these drugs cause great harm to individuals and to society at large,” the commission said, but it added that violent street crime and addiction are more often associated with crack distribution.
Raising the amount of crack required for a five-year minimum sentence will focus federal prosecutions more on mid- and high-level sellers, the panel said. Sentences still can be increased for dealers who use guns or are involved in violence, it added.
The commission said federal prosecutions should target serious dealers while leaving other prosecutions to the states. The vast majority of prosecutions now occur in state courts.
Commission Chairman Richard P. Conaboy said in an interview, “We want to target those defendants that are the most culpable and the most violent with the longest sentences. We think this will do that.”
The proposal was criticized by a group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums, whose president, Julie Stewart, said the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences should be eliminated as the commission recommended in 1995.