Sentencing sanity

SENTENCING SANITY…. There’s probably very little political upside to this, and it’s the kind of decision that will generate all kinds of conservative rhetoric about “soft on crime” and the importance of the “war on drugs.” I’m glad the Obama administration is doing the right thing anyway.

Justice Department officials yesterday endorsed for the first time a plan that would eliminate vast sentencing disparities between possession of powdered cocaine and rock cocaine, an inequity that civil rights groups say has affected poor and minority defendants disproportionately.

Lanny A. Breuer, the new chief of the criminal division, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that the Obama administration would support bills to equalize punishment for offenders convicted of possessing the drug in either form, fulfilling one of the president’s campaign pledges.

Breuer explicitly called on Congress to act this term to “completely eliminate” the sentencing disparity.

Good. The problem is with the “100-to-1” ratio for cocaine sentences. As the AP noted, “[A] person selling five grams of crack faces the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as someone selling 500 grams of powder cocaine.”

And because the vast majority of crack convictions involve African Americans, while powder cocaine convictions tend to involve whites, there’s also an obvious racial component to the sentencing disparity.

All of this discussion occurred at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime and drugs, chaired by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), an enthusiastic supporter of correcting the disparity.

Will anything come of this? I’m cautiously optimistic. Durbin has apparently helped persuade Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and the administration is committed to working with lawmakers on a legislative fix. The issue was of particular interest to the president and vice president, the NYT noted, who “co-sponsored legislation to eliminate disparity, fund treatment, and increase funding and penalties for high level convictions” while they were in the Senate.

It may be enough to actually change the law.

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