WASHINGTON – The Obama administration joined a federal judge Wednesday in urging Congress to end a racial disparity by equalizing prison sentences for dealing and using crack versus powdered cocaine.
"Jails are loaded with people who look like me," U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, an African-American, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.
Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said the administration believes Congress' goal "should be to completely eliminate the disparity" between the two forms of cocaine. "A growing number of citizens view it as fundamentally unfair," Breuer testified.
It takes 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger the same harsh mandatory minimum sentences.
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chairs the committee, said, "Under current law, mere possession of five grams of crack — the weight of five packets of sweetener — carries the same sentence as distribution of half a kilogram of powder or 500 packets of sweetener."
Durbin said more than 81 percent of those convicted for crack offenses in 2007 were African-American, although only about 25 percent of crack cocaine users are African Americans.
Congress enacted the disparity during an epidemic of crack cocaine in the 1980s, but the senator said lawmakers erred in assuming that violence would be greater among those using crack.
Breuer said the best way to deal with violence is to severely punish anyone who commits a violent offense, regardless of the drug involved.