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Obama Supports Ending Crack vs. Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

By Jacob Sullum

Today the Justice Department announced that it supports
eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine powder, under
which five grams of smokable cocaine triggers the same sentence as 500 grams of
the snortable form. The DOJ's position is not surprising, since President Obama
has repeatedly criticized excessively long mandatory minimum sentences and Vice
President Biden (a semi-repentant hardline drug warrior) sponsored legislation
as a senator that would make crack penalties the same as the penalties for
cocaine powder. Still, the Obama administration's early and strong support for
sentencing reform is a welcome contrast to the Bush administration.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer stated the DOJ's position at a hearing on crack sentences held by the Senate
Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs. One of the other
witnesses is Cedric Parker, whose sister, Eugenia Jennings, is eight years into
a 22-year sentence for two transactions in which she exchanged small amounts of
crack for clothing. Because of some minior drug priors, she was treated as a
"career offender." Even so, her sentence would have been about half as long had
she traded cocaine powder instead of crack. At her sentencing hearing, the judge
told her:

"Now is that fair? No. It's not....But the truth of the matter is, it's not in
my hands. As I told you, Congress has determined that the best way to handle
people who are troublesome is we just lock them up. Congress passed the

Now, with pro-reform Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, it
has a chance to unpass them.

Lanny Breuer's testimony is here. Cedric Parker's testimony is here (PDF). Families Against
Mandatory Minimums has more here. In a 2007 column, I argued that there is no rational basis for the
federal government's cocaine sentencing policies.


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