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Cocaine Sentencing Disparities May Change

The Sentencing Guidelines Com mission (SGC) is an independent body created by Congress in 1984 to reduce sentencing disparities in the federal court system. This has included creating sentencing guidelines which greatly restrict the discretion of judges in imposing sentences. In 1986 and 1988 congress passed laws mandating mandatory minimum sentences for defendants convicted of possessing or selling cocaine. However, in passing these laws Congress created a distinction between the powder form of cocaine and its crystalline form (AKA crack). Under the law, someone convicted of possessing five grams of crack receives a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. To qualify for that same sentence a defendant must be convicted of possessing at least 500 grams of powdered cocaine, this is known as the 100-1 ratio.

Numerous defendants have challenged the law for racial bias because statistical studies have shown that nearly 92% of all defendants convicted of crack possession are black or Hispanic but the bulk of those convicted of possessing powdered cocaine are white, which is leading to essentially race based disparities in sentencing. The 1994 federal crime bill directed the SGC to study the 100-1 disparity and make recommendations to congress.

On April 10, 1995, the SGC voted 4 to 3 to make crack cocaine sentences equal to those imposed for powdered cocaine. The proposal becomes law on November 1, 1995, unless Congress vetoes it. The SGC report stated in part: "While some aspects of drug use and distribution may justify a higher penalty for crack than for powder cocaine, the present 100 to 1 quantity ratio is too great." Chemically there is no difference between the two forms of cocaine. Rather, the crack form is popular among poor and minority drug users because it is cheaper (and more impure) than powdered cocaine.

Attorney general Janet Reno stated she opposed the SGC recommendation and would urge Congress to reject the proposed change.

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