Obama pushes to end disparity in sentencing for cocaine types
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration joined a federal judge yesterday in urging Congress to end a racial disparity by equalizing prison sentences for dealing and using crack versus powdered cocaine.
"Jails are loaded with people who look like me," US District Judge Reggie Walton, an African-American, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.
Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the administration believes Congress's goal "should be to completely eliminate the disparity" between the two forms of cocaine. "A growing number of citizens view it as fundamentally unfair," Breuer testified.
It takes 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger the same harsh mandatory minimum sentences.
Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said, "Under current law, mere possession of 5 grams of crack - the weight of five packets of sweetener - carries the same sentence as distribution of half a kilogram of powder or 500 packets of sweetener."
Durbin said more than 81 percent of those convicted for crack offenses in 2007 were African-American, although only about 25 percent of crack cocaine users are African Americans.
Congress enacted the disparity during an epidemic of crack cocaine in the 1980s, but the senator said lawmakers erred in assuming that violence would be greater among those using crack.
Breuer said the best way to deal with violence is to severely punish anyone who commits a violent offense, regardless of the drug involved.
"This administration believes our criminal laws should be tough, smart, fair," Breuer said, but also should "promote public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system."
Walton said, "We were mistaken" to enact the disparity. "There's no greater violence in cases before me."
He added that jurors have expressed an unwillingness to serve in crack cocaine cases because of the disparity.
President Obama had called for a change in the unequal sentencing while campaigning for the White House.
Breuer said the government should focus on punishing drug trafficking networks, like the cartels wreaking havoc in Mexico, and people whose crimes include acts of violence.
The Obama administration is also seeking to increase drug treatment, as well as rehabilitation programs for felons after release from prison.
The Justice Department is working on recommendations for a new set of sentences for cocaine, and Breuer urged Congress to overhaul the current law, which was written in 1986 at the height of public concern about crack use.
He also suggested that until such changes are made, federal prosecutors may encourage judges to use their discretion to depart from the current sentencing guidelines. Such departures are rare in the federal courts.