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Panel: Reform Crack, Powder Cocaine Penalties

After months of internal debate, the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended Tuesday that the gap between penalties for crack and powder cocaine crimes be reduced, saying the stiffer crack punishments “cannot be justified.”

Under current law, a seller of 5 grams of crack cocaine receives the same mandatory five-year prison term as a seller of 500 grams of powder cocaine.

That disparity has been one of the most contentious issues in the criminal justice system, tinged with overtones of race and class.

The commission is calling for crack crimes to remain more harshly punished, although it says the gap should be narrowed.

In its report Tuesday, the commission asked Congress to change the 100-to-1 ratio in sentences to essentially 5 to 1 by simultaneously raising the level at which crack crimes would trigger a mandatory sentence while dropping the quantity of powder cocaine that draws the same sentence.

The commission noted that 90 percent of the prisoners convicted for crack crimes are African Americans, while most crack users are white, a situation that “results in a perception of unfairness and inconsistency.”


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