Another Crack at Crack Sentences


In its latest report on federal cocaine penalties (PDF), the U.S. Sentencing Commission essentially reiterates what it's been saying since 1995:

(1) The current quantity-based penalties overstate the relative harmfulness of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine.

(2) The current quantity-based penalties sweep too broadly and apply most often to lower level offenders.

(3) The current quantity-based penalties overstate the seriousness of most crack cocaine offenses and fail to provide adequate proportionality.

(4) The current severity of crack cocaine penalties mostly impacts minorities.

The commission's recommendations to Congress include increasing the quantities of crack required to trigger five- and 10-year mandatory minimum sentences (currently five and 50 grams, respectively, compared to 500 grams and 5,000 grams for cocaine powder) and repealing the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack, which treats users of that drug as severely as dealers of other drugs. The report cautions against shrinking the sentencing gap between crack and cocaine powder by increasing the penalties for the latter (which some members of Congress have proposed), since "there is no evidence to justify such an increase in quantity-based penalties for powder cocaine offenses."

In 1995, when the commission started pointing out the injustice of federal crack sentences, Congress not only vociferously rejected its legislative advice; it voted to override the commission's attempt to equalize treatment of crack and cocaine powder quantities under federal sentencing guidelines. Today Congress may be in a more rational mood. The commission notes "renewed congressional interest in federal cocaine sentencing policy," adding that "federal cocaine sentencing policy, insofar as it provides substantially heightened penalties for crack cocaine offenses, continues to come under almost universal criticism from representatives of the Judiciary, criminal justice practitioners, academics, and community interest groups, and inaction in this area is of increasing concern to many."