A federal judge in Washington said yesterday that he would begin using the same sentencing standards for crack and powder cocaine offenses, becoming one of the first judges in the country to adopt a so-called 1-to-1 ratio.
In a decision that reduced the four-year-old prison term of a convicted crack dealer, Judge Paul Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that from a sentencing perspective, there was no convincing policy reason for treating crack and powder cocaine differently.
“Thus, in the future, this Court will apply the 1-to-1 ratio in all crack cocaine cases and then will separately consider all aggravating factors applicable in any individual case, such as violence, injury, recidivism or possession or use of weapons,” Friedman wrote.
The federal sentencing guidelines currently impose the same punishment for selling 5 grams of crack as for 500 grams of powder cocaine. But over the past decade, that difference has become a lightning rod for criticism, partly because it is said to disproportionately affect African Americans, who make up the majority of crack convictions.
The Federal Sentencing Commission has tried to chip away at that disparity, and has suggested that judges use a 20-to-1 ratio instead. While Congress never adopted the new recommendation, the Supreme Court has ruled in a series of cases that judges are free to depart from the sentencing guidelines essentially at will. The Justice Department has also recently voiced support for completely eliminating the crack-powder disparity.
The defendant in yesterday’s ruling, Anthony Lewis, pleaded guilty in 2005 to possessing 187.7 grams of crack. Because of his extensive criminal history, he was sentenced to 162 months in prison. Yesterday, Friedman lowered his term to 130 months.
Explaining his decision to use a 1-to-1 sentencing ratio, Friedman cited the reasoning of Judge Mark Bennett of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, who made the same move in May. Quoting from Bennett’s opinion, Friedman wrote that the Sentencing Commission’s decision to recommend a 20-to-1 sentencing disparity seemed to be motivated more by political considerations than sound policy making.
Friedman also sided with Bennett’s findings that the current cocaine guidelines make false assumptions about the relative addictiveness of crack and powder cocaine; incorrectly use weight to determine the harmfulness of the crime; punish low level dealers instead of major traffickers; and break down trust in the judicial system by penalizing African Americans.