Justice Department officials today endorsed for the first time the elimination of vast sentencing disparities for possession of powdered versus rock cocaine, an inequality that civil rights groups say disproportionately has affected poor and minority defendants, the Washington Post reports. The disparity has been described as 100 to 1 because it takes possession of 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine to trigger the same 5-year minimum sentence.
“Now is the time for us to reexamine federal cocaine sentencing policy, from the perspective of both fundamental fairness and safety,” Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in remarks prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said sentencing issues would be among those considered by a department panel that is examining a broad array of topics related to criminal justice charging, sentencing and prisoner treatment. Speaking in 2002 for the George W. Bush administration, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said a disparity was justified because ”higher penalties for crack offenses appropriately reflect the greater harm posed by crack cocaine.” Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) said the Obama administration stance “means a new day has dawned for fair and proportionate sentencing laws.”