The penalties for crack cocaine possession have long been a contentious issue in part because of the perception that they unfairly target minorities. The penalties were created in 1986 under the assumption that crack cocaine was more addictive than the powdered form, and that it led to more violence. On February 20th, Paul Rosen, counsel to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee for Senator Joseph R. Biden, spoke to Widener Law faculty and staff about Senator Biden’s proposal to reduce the mandatory federal sentences for possession of crack cocaine.
Under current federal sentencing guidelines, possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine results in a minimum 5-year sentence, which is equivalent to the penalty for trafficking 500 grams of powdered cocaine. Mr. Rosen pointed out, however, that recent research suggests that crack cocaine and powdered cocaine are identical from a pharmacological standpoint, and any disparities in the level of addictiveness come from the method of intake rather than any inherent chemical property of the drug. Crack is smoked rather than inhaled, and as a result has more immediate and directly addictive effects on the user than the powdered form of cocaine.
Mr. Rosen explained how legislation is referred to specific committees and then described specifically how legislation referred to the Judiciary Committee is handled. He discussed two other bills before the Judiciary Committee on drug sentencing reform; one sponsored by Senator Hatch that would reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine to a twenty to one difference, and another by Senator Sessions that would reduce the penalty for crack while raising the penalty for powdered cocaine to arrive at the same twenty to one ratio. The United States Sentencing Commission has indicated that they believe the penalty for powder cocaine is severe enough, and they have even imposed an amendment to sentencing guidelines that sets the old minimum as a maximum, allowing judges to use some discretion to set penalties below.
The engaging talk led to several questions from faculty members in attendance including a question about how political pressures might be influencing the process. The discussion that ensued focused on the feared perception of being soft on crime and the fact that Senators have to worry about upsetting their constituents. Mr. Rosen finished up his fascinating talk by looking at the Justice Department’s position, which maintains that, the sentencing guidelines are justified, that the method of intake of crack cocaine makes it more addictive, and that the crack cocaine trade leads to more violence. The Justice Department has indicated a willingness to discuss the one hundred to one sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine, however, if concessions are made on the retroactive portions of the Sentencing Commission’s amendment to the sentencing guidelines.