WASHINGTON — The U.S. Sentencing Commission indicated Friday that it will ask Congress to change drug laws to reduce differences in punishments involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine, a change the Justice Department believes is unnecessary.
The sentencing commission, in a statement, said it was concerned not only about whether cocaine punishments were fair but also "whether the penalties are perceived as fair."
The commission cited figures showing that a person must possess 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine to receive a comparable sentence.
To address the situation, the Justice Department would prefer that Congress increase sentences for powder cocaine crimes, not lower sentences for those involving crack. Reducing crack sentences would signal "a retreat in our nation's fight against illegal drugs," Deputy U.S. Atty. Gen. Larry Thompson told the sentencing commission last month.
Under U.S. law, a defendant is sentenced to at least five years for trafficking in 500 grams of powder cocaine or 5 grams of crack.
The commission said its members concluded unanimously that the punishment differences were "not appropriate," even while acknowledging that sentences in crack cocaine cases ought to be tougher than in cases involving powder cocaine.
"The sentencing commission chooses to bring light rather than heat to this subject," the commission's statement said.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. Viet Dinh has described the 100-to-1 figures as misleading. A recent Justice Department study found that crack defendants convicted of trafficking in cases involving fewer than 25 grams of cocaine received sentences roughly five times longer than the same defendants in powder cocaine cases.
"The department opposes any legislative proposal to lower the penalties for trafficking in crack cocaine," Dinh said. "The crack epidemic has had a devastating effect on its victims, and the law needs to continue to protect those victims in our most vulnerable communities."
The Justice Department said the sentencing commission rejected a measure that would have automatically lessened penalties for some crack defendants, unless Congress objected. Instead, the commission recommended that Congress consider reducing penalties for crack cocaine, the department said.