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Next step to close the cocaine gap

New sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders should also apply to those behind bars.

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Three times in 12 years the US Sentencing Commission has condemned wide disparities between crack and powder cocaine penalties. On Nov. 1, Congress finally let the commission adjust its sentencing guidelines. The next step must be to apply the new guidelines to those already in prison.

The Commission held hearings on the idea Tuesday, and is expected to make a decision next year. Making the new guidelines retroactive would mean cutting sentences by an average of at least two years for roughly 19,500 inmates serving crack-related time. That's about a tenth of the federal prison population – an unprecedented mass commutation.

Naturally, such a move raises concerns about public safety and burdening an already overloaded federal court system. The Department of Justice has not hesitated to point out these potential consequences.

But the merits of applying the Commission's new sentencing guidelines to past offenders rests on the merits of doing so for new offenders – and that decision has a solid foundation.

As early as 1995, the Sentencing Commission recognized that Congress had erred when its "mandatory minimum" laws of the 1980s set up vastly different penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses – especially since the laws were an attempt to create uniformity in drug sentencing. But lawmakers focused on crack cocaine because of its perceived potency relative to the powder form, and its potential to spin off serious street violence.

Mere possession of five grams of crack (the equivalent of five packets of sweetener), brought a minimum sentence of five years. But a person possessing powder cocaine needed to hold 100 times that amount to serve the same time behind bars.

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