The movement to reform federal cocaine sentencing laws got a big boost from the Obama administration today, as a top Justice Department official testified before Congress in support of reducing the difference between punishments for crack and powdered cocaine.
Lanny Breuer, the new assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division, argued that laws requiring the same punishment for selling 1 gram of crack as for selling 100 grams of powdered cocaine are outdated and have unfairly penalized African-Americans, who make up 82 percent of federal crack defendants.
Breuer read his remarks from a prepared statement later distributed to the press.
Federal law imposes a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for selling five grams of crack or 500 grams of powdered cocaine. Selling 50 grams of crack or 5,000 grams of powdered cocaine earns a 10-year minimum sentence.
Breuer said science has found little scientific basis for the laws. “We cannot ignore the mounting evidence that the current cocaine sentencing disparity is difficult to justify based on the facts and science, including evidence that crack is not an inherently more addictive substance than powder cocaine,” he said. “We know of no other controlled substance where the penalty structure differs so dramatically because of the drug’s form."
Breuer also pointed to data showing that most crack prosecutions target low-level distributors. Fifty-five percent of federal crack offenders were street dealers, versus 7 percent of those convicted of selling powdered cocaine.
"The Administration believes Congress’s goal should be to completely eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine," Breuer said.
UPDATE 4:48 p.m.