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The Sentencing Project seeks to reduce crack cocaine sentencing disparity

Thursday, March 24, 2011 | 5:28 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — More than a dozen states should eliminate the disparities they maintain in sentencing people charged with crack and powder cocaine crimes and gaps persist despite changes to federal law last year, a national group that advocates for criminal justice reform said Thursday.

The Sentencing Project said in a report that treating the two types of the same drug differently is not only a fairness issue, but also a monetary one.

The disparity is unfair to black drug users who are more likely to be charged with crack-cocaine offenses and end up with longer prison terms than cocaine users of other races, the Washington, D.C.-based group said. The disparity also leads to long sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders that cost cash-strapped states millions of dollars in prison expenses that could be saved if the the disparity was removed.

"Fiscal pressure to tighten state corrections budgets, along with mounting evidence documenting the unfair and unwarranted structure of these sentencing laws, suggests that lawmakers should re-examine the sentencing differential between crack and powder cocaine," the group said. "High rates of incarceration are expensive to maintain and sentencing changes ... can effectively conserve resources without adverse effects on public safety."

Until last August, the federal government had a 100-to-1 ratio in sentencing people for possession of the two cocaine types. That meant someone caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine was sentenced the same as someone caught with 500 grams of powder. The Fair Sentencing Act signed by President Barack Obama reduced the federal ratio to 18-to-1.

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, said that's a good start, but the goal is still to have the disparity removed altogether.

"There's a fairly broad range of opinion over a number of years about whether penalties at the federal level should be equalized," Mauer said during a telephone news conference Thursday. "In that regard, the 18-to-1 ratio they ended up with was a compromise. It was a significant change." But his group believes "equalization of penalties is the direction things should go."

Thirteen states currently have laws under which people are sentenced more harshly for crack crimes than ones involving powder cocaine. Two of those — Missouri and New Hampshire — have ratios above that of the federal government.

Missouri Rep. Chris Carter, a St. Louis Democrat, said he plans to submit legislation to remove the state's 75-to-1 ratio as soon as the General Assembly comes back from break.

"The prison system in Missouri is overcrowded and enduring tough budget times," Carter said during the news conference. "I want to reduce the disparity and begin to empty the prison system of low-level and nonviolent offenders and still keep public safety."

He said the disparities treat black drug offenders unfairly, noting the crack problem among African-Americans "grows out of joblessness, hopelessness and poor education."

New Hampshire's ratio is 28-to-1. Ann Rice, an associate attorney general in the state, said she is not aware of any proposed legislation in New Hampshire addressing the issue.

The other states that treat the two types of cocaine differently for sentencing purposes are Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, California, Maine, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Vermont and Virginia.

Oklahoma state Sen. Constance Johnson cited research in the report concluding that when cocaine is absorbed into the bloodstream and reaches the brain, "its effects on brain chemistry are identical regardless of whether it is in the form of crack or powder."

"Once upon a time people believed crack cocaine was more dangerous and addictive than powder, but they are the same," Johnson said. "In Oklahoma we continue that belief with 10-year mandatory minimums for 5 grams of crack and 28 grams of powder."

While Johnson called the practice of keeping nonviolent criminals behind bars because of the sentencing disparity an "untenable situation," she said politicians aren't falling over themselves trying to reduce prison sentences for crack cocaine users.

"There's a lack of political will and concern about appearing soft on crime," Johnson said.

Prison data breaking down the number of people doing time for crack compared to powder offenses was not available.


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