Clinton Signs Bill To Disapprove of Equalizing Crack-Powder Cocaine Sentences
On October 30, President Clinton signed a bill that blocks the U.S. Sentencing Commission amendments to equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine from taking effect (see "Congress Nixes Amendments to Sentencing Guidelines on Cocaine, Money Laundering," 58 CrL 1086, October 25, 1995).
In a statement Clinton said the U.S. is making strides in combatting crime and violence. "We have to send a constant message to our children that drugs are illegal, drugs are dangerous, drugs may cost you your life -- and the penalties for dealing drugs are severe," he said. "I am not going to let anyone who peddles drugs get the idea that the cost of doing business is going down."
Clinton also mentioned that he may support proposals that toughen powder cocaine sentences. "When large-scale cocaine traffickers sell powder with the knowledge that it will be converted into crack, they should be punished as severely as those who distribute the crack itself. I have asked the Attorney General to immediately develop enforcement strategies to bring about this result."
On September 29, the Senate passed S. 1254, which disapproves the Commission Guidelines amendments on crack cocaine sentencing (including severe enhancements for using weapons or inflicting harm in the course of a drug offense) and money laundering. The bill included an amendment offered by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) directing the Commission to submit to Congress recommendations for changes in the statutes and Guidelines regarding cocaine offenses.
The House Judiciary Committee reported a bill, H.R. 2259, which would have disapproved the amendments on crack and money laundering but would have retained the weapons enhancements, thus making sentences even longer. The House passed S. 1254, which the President signed.
In her weekly news briefing, Attorney General Janet Reno said the sentencing disparity is unfair. "Clearly I think [penalties] should be equalized with respect to possession offenses," she said. "And equally clearly, I don't think the 100-to-1 ratio is fair." She also said that people who provide powder cocaine to those who cook it into crack should get "the more appropriately stiff sentence than the person who distributes the crack" (Vanessa Gallman, Knight-Ridder, "Reno Softens Stance On Crack Cocaine Sentences," Buffalo News, October 27, 1995, p. A14).
A Commission amendment regarding marijuana sentencing did become law on November 1. The effect of the amendment is that each marijuana plant will be considered the equivalent of 100 grams for sentencing purposes, thus eliminating a "cliff" in the Guidelines. Before November 1, someone convicted of growing 50 plants would receive a sentence of 33 to 41 months, which is four times longer than the sentence for someone convicted of growing 49 plants (10 to 16 months).
In other news on cocaine sentencing, on November 7, Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) introduced a bill to increase the penalties for powder cocaine (Sam Vincent Meddis, "Balancing the Scales of Justice," USA Today, November 8, 1995, p. 7A). S. 1398 would amend the mandatory minimums to reduce the quantities of powder cocaine that trigger mandatory prison terms for distribution. (The bill would also direct the Sentencing Commission to do the same to the Sentencing Guidelines.) Distribution of 5 grams of cocaine would trigger a 5-year minimum prison term and distribution of 50 grams of cocaine would trigger a 10-year sentence. Under the current sentence structure, distribution of 500 grams of powder cocaine carries a 5-year sentence. The Breaux bill would authorize the death penalty for distribution of as little as 3 kilograms of powder cocaine. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Hank Brown (R-CO).
In a statement in the Congressional Record, Breaux said he was "honestly shocked" to learn of the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. "The answer to the problem presented by this wide difference in penalties is not to lower penalties for selling crack cocaine but to increase the penalties for selling powder cocaine," the statement says (Congressional Record, November 7, 1995, page S16755). [The National Drug Strategy Network has prepared a fact sheet on the Breaux bill. If you would like a copy, contact the Network office.]
Another Senate bill to lower the amounts of powder cocaine triggering mandatory sentences, S. 1253, was introduced by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-MI) on September 18. Under that bill, 100 grams of powder cocaine would trigger a 5-year mandatory and 1 kilogram of cocaine would trigger a 10-year mandatory sentence (see "Congress Moves Closer to Blocking Crack Amendments," NewsBriefs, November 1995).
No hearings were held in the House or the Senate on the proposed money laundering changes. The amendment would have required prosecutors to show a more direct tie between the supposed laundered money and the crime through which it was generated.
[For background on this issue, see previous editions of NewsBriefs: "Congress Moves Closer to Blocking Crack Amendments," NewsBriefs, November 1995; "Senate Holds Hearings on Crack Cocaine Sentencing," NewsBriefs, October 1995; "House Holds Hearings on Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity," NewsBriefs, September 1995; "U.S. Sentencing Commission Recommends Equalizing Crack-Powder Cocaine Guidelines and Statutes," NewsBriefs, April 1995; "U.S. Sentencing Commission Releases Long-Awaited Report on Crack/Powder Sentences," NewsBriefs, March 1995. For copies of these issues, call the NewsBriefs office.]