Today the Justice Department announced that it supports eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine powder, under which five grams of smokable cocaine triggers the same sentence as 500 grams of the snortable form. The DOJ's position is not surprising, since President Obama has repeatedly criticized excessively long mandatory minimum sentences and Vice President Biden (a semi-repentant hardline drug warrior) sponsored legislation as a senator that would make crack penalties the same as the penalties for cocaine powder. Still, the Obama administration's early and strong support for sentencing reform is a welcome contrast to the Bush administration.
Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer stated the DOJ's position at a hearing on crack sentences held by the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs. One of the other witnesses is Cedric Parker, whose sister, Eugenia Jennings, is eight years into a 22-year sentence for two transactions in which she exchanged small amounts of crack for clothing. Because of some minior drug priors, she was treated as a "career offender." Even so, her sentence would have been about half as long had she traded cocaine powder instead of crack. At her sentencing hearing, the judge told her:
Now is that fair? No. It's not....But the truth of the matter is, it's not in my hands. As I told you, Congress has determined that the best way to handle people who are troublesome is we just lock them up. Congress passed the laws.
Now, with pro-reform Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, it has a chance to unpass them.
Lanny Breuer's testimony is here. Cedric Parker's testimony is here (PDF). Families Against Mandatory Minimums has more here. In a 2007 column, I argued that there is no rational basis for the federal government's cocaine sentencing policies.