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Lower Crack Cocaine Penalties, Justice Dept. Advises Congress

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Criminal penalties for crack cocaine sales and possession should be lowered so that they are the same as those for offenses involving the powdered form of the drug, a high-ranking member of the U.S. Justice Department told Congress this week.

The New York Times reported April 30 that Lanny A. Breuer, head of the department's Criminal Division, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Crime and Drugs Subcommittee that mandatory-minimum sentences that treat crack offenders more harshly than those whose crimes involved powdered cocaine create sentencing inequities that lead to a disproportionate number of African-Americans being imprisoned.

For example, the mandatory sentence for possessing 50 grams of crack is the same as for possessing 5,000 grams of powdered cocaine.

“Most in the law-enforcement community now recognize the need to reevaluate current federal cocaine-sentencing policy and the disparities the policy creates,” said Breuer.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), a longtime supporter of mandatory-minimum sentences (along with former Senator and now Vice President Joseph Biden), backed Breuer's request. “Each of the myths upon which we based the disparity has since been dispelled or altered,” Durbin said. “Crack-related violence has decreased significantly since the 1980s, and today 94 percent of crack-cocaine cases don't involve violence at all.”

President Barack Obama previously had called for the sentencing disparity to be ended. However, James Pasco, a lobbyist for the Fraternal Order of Police, said that the powdered cocaine penalties should be increased to the crack levels, not the other way around.

“The Obama administration just says they want the disparity addressed,” Pasco said. “So somewhere between our position for raising sentences for powder, and their position for doing away with disparities, there's room for discussion.”

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