Drug Laws Scrutinized

Sentencing For Crack, Powdered Cocaine Unfair, Official Says

April 30, 2009|By Josh Meyer | Josh Meyer,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -The Obama administration signaled a sharp departure Wednesday from 20 years of federal policy and called on Congress to close the huge disparity in prison sentences for those dealing crack versus powdered cocaine, agreeing with critics who say it is unfair to African-Americans.

Newly confirmed Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the administration believes the so-called mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines are so inherently unfair that they have undermined trust in the country's judicial institutions, particularly among minorities who bear the brunt of the law.

Breuer and other witnesses testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee said the policies, launched when authorities feared crack was becoming an epidemic in the mid-1980s, are based on faulty assumptions that have long since been discredited, including that crack users were far more violent and dangerous to the community than powder cocaine users.

Since they were enacted in 1986, the Justice Department and Congress under three administrations, Democrat and Republican, supported the sentencing guidelines. Currently, it takes 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger the same harsh mandatory minimum sentence.

Breuer said the administration and its Justice Department now support a one-to-one even sentencing ratio, and that sentence enhancements should be reserved for people who use weapons in drug trafficking crimes.

"This administration believes our criminal laws should be tough, smart, fair and perceived as such by the American public," Breuer said in testimony before the subcommittee, at which there was also testimony about the devastating effects of the crack policy.

Breuer said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has established a special task force that will review the issue to determine how to proceed fairly, especially on the potentially explosive issue of establishing a policy that is retroactive. The group, headed by Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, could spur far broader policy changes affecting other criminal justice policy.

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