Opinion

Fairer drug sentences

Now that federal sentencing guidelines for drug convictions have been dramatically changed to undo the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses, it is only fair to extend some leniency to those already serving time under the old standards.

The glaring disparity between sentencing for offenses involving crack cocaine compared with those for powder cocaine has been a searing point of contention since the guidelines were established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the 1980s. Under those guidelines, the punishment for dealing 1 gram of crack cocaine -- the rough equivalent of a package of artificial sweetener -- was the same as the sentence for a dealer trafficking in 100 grams of powder cocaine.

The disparity arose from unfounded fears that crack cocaine was considerably more addictive and dangerous than powder cocaine. In truth, the pharmacological effect of both drugs is virtually identical.

The difference was in the users: Most crack users are low-income blacks; most powder cocaine users are middle-class whites. Four of every five crack defendants in the U.S. are black, while most powder cocaine convictions involve whites.

Thankfully, both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Sentencing Commission acted last year to correct the unfairness in drug sentences. The court, voting 7-2, ruled in December that federal judges had the discretion to reduce sentences for crack cocaine.

The Sentencing Commission, which already had agreed to revise its sentencing guidelines, voted in December to retroactively review many of the cocaine sentences handed down using the old standards. The new guidelines went into effect Monday, and about 1,600 inmates became eligible for immediate release this week.

This undoubtedly is the most controversial aspect of the decision to alter the guidelines. Even some of those who concede that the disparity in sentencing was unfair are reluctant to release inmates already behind bars.

Ultimately, nearly 20,000 inmates convicted of crack offenses could see their prison terms reduced. But some argue that those inmates should stay right where they are, saying there is no way to gauge how many of those inmates resorted to plea bargains, which may have waived convictions for other serious crimes.

But this is not simply a "get out of jail free" card for all crack offenders. Each inmate will have to request a reduced sentence and go before a judge, who will review the case before making a decision. While some crack offenders may have deserved the long sentences they received under the old guidelines, it also is undeniable that many first-time, non-violent defendants received disproportionately harsh sentences.

It is high time that thousands of African-Americans swept off the streets for crack have a chance to seek the justice that the government now has acknowledged is due them.

IN SUMMARY

New sentencing guidelines that address disparity for crack offenders went into effect this week.

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