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
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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