States May Also Consider Crack-Powder Penalty Changes


The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s decision to relax federal penalties for those caught with crack cocaine has raised hopes among civil-rights groups and others that the move will inspire similar changes at the state level, says The federal government and 13 states mete out tougher punishments for those who possess and peddle crack cocaine than for those who are caught with the same illegal substance in its powder form. In Missouri a drug dealer who sells six grams of crack faces the same prison term under state law – at least 10 years behind bars – as someone who sells 75 times that amount, or 450 grams, of powder cocaine. “The African-American community has been devastated and downgraded by that particular inequity, which was a legislated inequity,” said Redditt Hudson of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Others point to the fact that crack cocaine historically has proven more destructive than powder, and played a key role in a nationwide crime surge during the 1980s, when many of the strict state and federal laws were approved. “It wasn't just the drug itself. It was the correlating violence and weapons,” said Barbara Tombs of the Vera Institute of Justice and a former state sentencing official in Minnesota and Kansas. “Politically speaking, there's renewed interest and a window of opportunity – which has never been this big – to reconsider the disparate penalties for crack and better prioritize who we put behind bars,” said Adam Gelb of the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project, which advises states on criminal-justice policies. Of the 13 states that dole out tougher penalties for crack offenses, Ohio may become the first to change its law to provide parity. Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said a key test of changing attitudes will come when the U.S. Sentencing Commission announces its decision on making its new sentencing guidelines retroactive – possibly in January.


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