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U.S. Sentencing Commission Recommends Equalizing Crack-Powder Cocaine Guidelines and Statutes


April 1995

On Apr. 13 the U.S. Sentencing Commission, by a vote of 4 to 3, recommended changing the sentencing guidelines to equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine.

Currently, the guidelines treat one gram of crack cocaine and 100 grams of powder cocaine equally for the purposes of sentencing offenders.

Attorney General Janet Reno said the Justice Department does not agree that crack and powder cocaine should be treated equally because crack has a greater impact on inner-city areas. "I strongly oppose measures that fail to reflect the harsh and terrible impact of crack on communities across America," she said (Toni Locy, "Reno Assails Parity in Drug Crime Penalties," Washington Post, Apr. 16, 1995, p. A17).

Amendments to the guidelines were submitted to Congress on May 1. Congress must act on the proposal within 180 days, or the amendments automatically become part of the guidelines.

On May 1, the Sentencing Commission also sent draft legislation to Capitol Hill to equalize the mandatory minimum statutes for crack and powder cocaine. The legislation, entitled "Cocaine Penalty Adjustment Act of 1995," would preserve mandatory sentences for cocaine offenses but would strike the phrases that assign larger penalties to crack offenses. Similar legislation, H.R. 1264, had been introduced by Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-NY) on March 16, 1995 and referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

In an accompanying letter, the Commission wrote that because sentence enhancements for gun possession or violence are more often meted out to crack offenders than powder offenders, those convicted of crack offenses will probably still receive longer sentences.

The proposed legislation and sentencing guideline changes come in the wake of a special report on cocaine sentencing that was sent to Congress in February (U.S. Sentencing Commission, Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy, Feb. 1995; see "U.S. Sentencing Commission Releases Long-Awaited Report on Crack/Powder Sentences," NewsBriefs, Mar. 1995, p. 3).