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Published: Friday, 11/16/2007

Sentencing fairness

JUSTICE is supposed to be blind, especially color-blind. But legal and civil rights advocates have agreed that hasn't been the case in sentencing crack cocaine offenders. Usually they have been black, and usually they have received harsher penalties than middle-class white offenders convicted in powdered cocaine cases.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, an agency of the federal judicial branch, is finally moving to correct this inequity.

For years, groups have lobbied for parity in sentencing for crack and powdered cocaine offenders. Crack cocaine is potentially more addictive, but its chemical properties are the same as powdered cocaine. Crack appeals more to the poor, many of whom are minorities, because it is less expensive. It's only right that the commission try for consistency in sentencing. Last spring it set more lenient sentencing guidelines to be issued to crack cocaine offenders in the future. Now it is weighing retroactively reducing sentences of crack inmates in federal prisons.

That would be the right thing to do, even though we don't condone crack or powdered cocaine use at all. Cocaine destroys those who use it. But there is no place for unfair sentencing in America, and there is a wide consensus among many federal judges, public defenders, and parole officers that penalties for crack fall disproportionately on African-Americans.

Moreover, there is a precedent for the commission to reduce sentences and make a policy retroactive. In fact, the panel, which was created in 1984 to bring consistency to sentencing in federal courts, did precisely that when it applied new sentencing guidelines in cases involving LSD, the cultivation of marijuana, and the painkiller OxyContin.

Under the new proposal, the sentences of 19,500 inmates could be reduced by an average of 27 months. It would apply only to those in federal prisons, not state facilities, where most drug offenders are incarcerated. Prison doors won't just start swinging open, though. Former inmates would go to halfway houses first.

The Bush Administration opposes the proposal, but the President can't make the claim that this is a liberal body. Its voting members include four persons named by President Bush and three named by former President Clinton. Nonvoting members include the Attorney General and the chairman of the U.S. Parole Commission.

The chairman, Ricardo H. Hinojosa, nominated to that post by President Reagan, asked Congress to ease crack sentencing guidelines earlier this year. He said the racial differences between crack and other cocaine users set an unwarranted disparity, and he was right.

Whenever unfairness is identified in American justice, it must be rooted out. It is encouraging in this case that a new policy from the commission seems about to do just that, and the states should be encouraged to follow suit.



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