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The discrepancy between the federal court penalty for crack cocaine offenses and powder cocaine offenses is too great, concludes a special report issued last month by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The federal criminal code currently provides for a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for first-time offenders trafficking in 5 grams or more of crack cocaine or 500 grams or more of powder cocaine, and a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence for first-time offenders trafficking in 50 grams or more of crack cocaine and 5,000 grams or more of powder cocaine. The commission proposes that the guidelines system be revised by amending the current new sentencing scheme to address concerns of Congress regarding the punishment of these offenses.

The Sentencing Commission shares congressional and public concern about the harms associated with crack cocaine--both to users and to the society as a whole--including the violence associated with its distribution, its use by juveniles, the involvement of women and juveniles in distribution, and its addictive potential, said the commission's report. However, the Sentencing Commission concludes that Congress's objectives with regard to punishing crack cocaine trafficking can be achieved more effectively without relying on the current federal sentencing scheme for crack cocaine offenses that includes the 100 to 1 quantity ratio.

One of the impacts of this discrepancy is that low-level (retail) crack cocaine dealers potentially can be punished far more severely than their high-level (wholesale) suppliers of powder cocaine, from which crack is converted, said the report. In 1993, the mean sentence for crack possession was 30.6 months and the mean sentence for powder was 3.2 months. The median sentence for crack was 9.5 months, while the median sentence for powder was zero, indicating that defendants in 73.8 percent of the powder possession cases received probation with no prison term, while only 32 percent of the defendants in crack possession cases received probation.

The commission suggests that refinement of the existing Sentencing Guidelines may be a more equitable way in which to establish the proper penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. Such action could take place in the course of the commission's normal 1995-96 amendment cycle. As a result, the commission recommends that Congress revisit the 100 to 1 quantity ratio and the penalty structure that provides for a mandatory five-year sentence for simple possession of crack but a statutory maximum penalty of one year for simple possession of any other drug.

The Omnibus Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 directed the commission to study federal sentencing policy relating to the possession and distribution of cocaine. The report, entitled Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy, was transmitted to Congress by the commission. Copies can be obtained by contacting the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building, One Columbus Circle, NE, Suite 2-500, Washington, DC 2002-8002 or by calling (202) 273-4590.

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