A change in federal sentencing guidelines has narrowed the huge discrepancy in prison time for convictions involving powder versus crack cocaine, after a 20-year battle over the issue, says the Christian Science Monitor. Possession of five grams of crack cocaine has landed a person in jail for five years. People caught with cocaine powder would have to possess 100 times that amount, or 500 grams, to get the same five-year stint behind bars. Because most people convicted of crack offenses are black and most convicted of powder cocaine offenses are white, critics have long argued that the disparity represents an racial inequity.
This week the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced its recommended sentences for crack-related offenses. Up to 4 in 5 people found guilty of crack-cocaine offenses will get sentences that are, on average, 16 months shorter than they would have been under the former guidelines. Opponents of the 100-to-1 ratio applaud the panel’s action, but they say it’s just a first step because the mandatory minimum sentences set by Congress remain on the books. Commissioners plan to meet Nov. 13 to discuss whether the change can be made retroactively. If that were done, more than 19,500 people now serving time for crack offenses could see their sentences reduced by an average of 27 months.