April 29, 1997

News Release

U.S. Sentencing Commission
One Columbus Circle NE
Washington, DC 20002-8002

For Immediate Release:
Tuesday, April 29, 1997

Contact: Jonathan Wroblewski
(202) 273-4520

U.S. SENTENCING COMMISSION SUBMITS NEW RECOMMENDATIONS ON COCAINE SENTENCING

WASHINGTON, D.C. Federal penalties for powder cocaine and crack cocaine

should be revised and made more comparable to each other, the U.S. Sentencing Commission said today in a report to Congress. Federal law currently distinguishes between the two principal forms of cocaine by requiring much harsher sentences for trafficking in crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine (5 grams of crack and 500 grams of powder cocaine both trigger the same five-year mandatory minimum penalty, a differential known as the "100-to-1 quantity ratio").

In its unanimous recommendation, the Sentencing Commission said that "although research and public policy may support somewhat higher penalties for crack than for powder cocaine, a 100-to-1 quantity ratio cannot be justified." In the past several years, critics of the law have focused on the disproportionate impact the crack penalties have had on African American defendants, who account for approximately 90 percent of all offenders sentenced under the harsher penalties.

"Selecting the appropriate threshold for triggering the five-year mandatory minimum penalties is not a precise undertaking," the report said. "The Commission is firmly and unanimously in agreement that the current penalty differential for federal powder and crack cocaine cases should be reduced by changing the quantity levels that trigger mandatory minimum penalties for both powder and crack cocaine."

Instead of offering a single new ratio, the Commission recommended a range of possible options to adjust both powder cocaine and crack cocaine penalties. "For powder cocaine, the Commission recommends that the current 500-gram trigger for the five-year mandatory minimum sentence should be reduced to a level between 125 and 375 grams, and for crack cocaine, the current five-gram trigger should be increased to between 25 and 75 grams," the report said. The ten-year mandatory minimum penalties should be revised accordingly, the Commission said.

Judge Richard P. Conaboy, Chairman of the Sentencing Commission, said, "The ranges suggested provide Congress the flexibility to make an informed judgment about the appropriate penalties for these two forms of cocaine. We feel strongly, though, that the current policy must be changed to ensure that severe penalties are targeted at the most serious traffickers. Adopting a ratio within the ranges we recommend will more accurately accomplish this purpose," he said.

Congress directed the Commission to submit new recommendations on federal cocaine sentencing policy after rejecting proposed changes to the sentencing guidelines for powder and crack cocaine offenses developed by the Commission in 1995. Since that time, the Commission has conducted additional research, consulted with law enforcement and substance abuse experts, and analyzed a vast array of information about powder cocaine and crack cocaine and the changing markets for these drugs.

In order to act on the Commission's recommendations, Congress would need to pass and the President would need to sign a bill revising current federal mandatory minimum penalties. After Congress has evaluated the recommendations and expressed its views, the Commission would amend its sentencing guidelines to reflect congressional intent.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the Judicial Branch of the federal government, was organized in late 1985 to develop a national sentencing policy for the federal courts. The resulting sentencing guidelines, which went into effect November 1, 1987, structure the courts' sentencing discretion to ensure that similar offenders who commit similar offenses receive similar sentences. Since nationwide implementation in January 1989, federal judges have sentenced more than 300,000 defendants under the guidelines.

The report and recommendations on cocaine sentencing policy are available on the Commission's Internet Website, "www.ussc.gov".


United States Sentencing Commission: