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June 2, 2005 - New York Times (NY)

Editorial: Bringing Fairness to Drug Sentencing

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Congress spawned a national trend toward discriminatory sentencing when it drew a false distinction between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine for law enforcement purposes during the 1980's.

Crack is simply powdered cocaine cooked in baking soda.

The theory at the time - that it was more addictive and generated more violence than powder - was later proved false.

By then, however, Congress had made crack the only drug that mandates a sentence for a first offense and fixed high sentences for people caught with relatively small quantities.

This mistake has resulted in a racially biased sentencing policy, since crack users are mainly black and Latino, while powdered cocaine tends to be a drug of choice for affluent whites.

This system was emulated by the states, and its blatant unfairness undermines respect for the judicial system in communities of color.

The United States Sentencing Commission has repeatedly urged Congress to deal with this shameful problem by reducing the sentencing for possession of crack to bring the two more in line.

But Congress has rejected this idea, for fear of being seen as "soft on drugs." State legislatures have generally been paralyzed by this same fear.

Nevertheless, the argument for fairness is finally being aired in several states, including California, South Carolina and Connecticut.

Both houses of the Connecticut Legislature have passed a bill that would bring crack and powdered cocaine sentences into line. Gov. Jodi Rell is equivocating on whether she will sign.

She has the chance to demonstrate to the people of the state that she has the strength of character to do something that has no discernible political advantage, simply because it's the right thing.

It is an opportunity she shouldn't refuse.

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