Review of cocaine sentences urged

March 01, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Sentencing Commission, reporting to Congress on a racially sensitive issue, urged the legislators yesterday to take another look at laws that punish dealers of crack cocaine 100 times more severely than those who peddle the drug in powder form.

The commission, an independent agency, said it had "great concern" that many more blacks than whites are convicted and subjected to "much harsher punishment" for distributing crack. It added, though, that it saw no evidence that there was any intentional racism in the different penalty or its enforcement.

While both forms are dangerous, the commission said, they are actually only two forms of the same drug, and the difference in penalty treatment between them "is too great."

It did not suggest a specific change to the punishments, but merely a study by Congress and the commission of new ways to calculate cocaine-selling penalties.

Under mandatory federal law, there is a five-year minimum prison sentence for selling 5 grams or more of crack. The same penalty is assessed for 500 grams or more of cocaine in powder form.

Powdered cocaine is more commonly used, the commission said, and crack is made from it in a process requiring only baking soda, water and a stove or microwave.

For years, civil rights activists have complained that the 100-to-1 ratio, meaning that it takes 100 times as much powdered cocaine compared with crack to trigger fixed minimum penalties, results in racially discriminatory enforcement.

Since blacks more often are prosecuted for crack offenses, and more whites for powdered cocaine crimes, the differences in penalty work out to a serious racial disparity, those groups complain.

Lawsuits have been aimed at the difference, but so far the ratio has not been struck down by any final decision of a federal appeals court. The Supreme Court refused in 1993 to hear a constitutional challenge based on racial disparity.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has nullified a similar state penalty law that treated crack cocaine crimes more severely, concluding that it was racially discriminatory.

The Sentencing Commission, ordered by Congress last year to study the issue, found that the claims of a racial disparity were accurate as statistics. It found an "inescapable conclusion" that blacks make up by far the largest percentage of those punished for crack crimes.

Blacks, it said, accounted for 88.3 percent of convictions in federal court for distributing crack in 1993, with whites at only 4.1 percent. For powdered cocaine, distribution convictions that year involved whites in 32 percent of the cases and blacks in 27.4 percent.

"As all appellate courts have found," the commission said, "there is no evidence that Congress or the Sentencing Commission acted with any discriminatory intent in setting different" penalties for different forms of cocaine.

It said the stiffer penalty for crack was due mainly to the view that the public should get greater protection from the form that could be distributed easily and sold cheaply.

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