WASHINGTON – The Obama administration, signaling a sharp departure from more than 20 years of federal policy, on Wednesday urged Congress to close the gap in prison sentences given to those convicted of dealing crack versus powdered cocaine.
Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines are so inherently unfair that they have undermined trust in the country’s judicial institutions, particularly among minorities who bear the brunt of the law.
It takes 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger the same harsh mandatory minimum sentence.
Testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Breuer and other witnesses said that the guidelines, instituted in 1986 when authorities feared crack was becoming an epidemic, were based on faulty assumptions – including that crack users were far more violent and dangerous to the community than powdered-cocaine users.
Breuer said the Obama administration and its Justice Department support equal sentencing for crack and powdered-cocaine dealers and that sentence enhancements should be reserved for those who use weapons in drug trafficking crimes.
“This administration believes our criminal laws should be tough, smart, fair and perceived as such by the American public,” Breuer said.
In the past, conservative senators have opposed changes in the law, saying they did not want to go easy on crack dealers. But little of that was in evidence Wednesday. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he was concerned about testimony that indicated that some juries were voting against finding people guilty rather than saddling them with long prison sentences for crack.