WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, signaling a sharp departure from more than 20 years of federal policy, urged Congress on Wednesday to close the gap in prison sentences given to those convicted of dealing crack versus powdered cocaine.
Assistant Atty. Gen. Lanny Breuer said the mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines are so inherently unfair that they have undermined trust in the country's judicial institutions, particularly among minorities who bear the brunt of the law.
Currently, it takes 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger the same harsh mandatory minimum sentence.
Testifying before a Senate judiciary subcommittee, Breuer and other witnesses said that the guidelines, instituted in 1986 when authorities feared that crack use was becoming an epidemic, were based on faulty assumptions -- including that crack users were far more violent and dangerous to the community than powder cocaine users.
Breuer said the Obama administration and its Justice Department support equal sentencing for crack and powder cocaine dealers, and that sentence enhancements should be reserved for those who use weapons in drug trafficking crimes.
"This administration believes our criminal laws should be tough, smart, fair and perceived as such by the American public," Breuer said. To that end, he said, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. has established a task force that will determine how to proceed, especially on the potentially explosive issue of establishing a retroactive policy. The group will be headed by Deputy Atty. Gen. David Ogden.
Critics of the current guidelines said that if Congress passed equal-sentencing legislation, it could affect thousands of families that have been torn apart.
"This means a great deal, and more than symbolically," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. She noted that although several bills to address the issue were pending in the House, previous Senate efforts to deal with sentencing disparity had been unsuccessful.
Breuer and other witnesses noted that applying a new law retroactively could swamp the courts with thousands of crack dealers seeking to have their sentences reduced.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission took an incremental step toward such retroactivity several years ago, which has strained the court system, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton testified. But the former federal prosecutor and drug policy official, who has been an outspoken opponent of the crack cocaine policy, said, "I don't think we can let that burden impair us from doing what fundamentally has to be done to make our process fair."
Several senators, most of them Democrats, indicated that they supported such a change in policy but wanted to hear more details about how it could be implemented retroactively.
"I think we need to know exactly what we're talking about," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
In the past, conservative senators have opposed changes in the law, saying they did not want to go easy on crack dealers. But little of that was in evidence Wednesday. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he was concerned about testimony that indicated some juries were acquitting defendants rather than saddle them with long prison sentences for selling crack.