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POWDER OR CRACK, IT'S STILL COCAINE

Freed from re-election concerns, the Clinton administration has finally embraced the recommendations of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and others to reduce the disparity in sentences for possessing crack and powdered cocaine.

The overdue recommendation still must be implemented by Congress. But with the Justice Department pushing it this time, there's a much greater likelihood that the indefensible disparity -- which carries racial overtones -- will be reduced to a level that makes sense.

Currently, possessing 5 grams of crack triggers a mandatory minimum federal sentence of five years, while it takes 500 grams of powder to mandate the same punishment.

Since crack can be sold in small quantities that make it affordable to poor, inner-city drug users, the law has had the effect of imposing much harsher sentences on black crack addicts than on whites who dabble in powder. Scientists say the disparity is indefensible on scientific grounds.

One result has been the disproportionate jailing of black crack users while white powder sniffers go free. Another has been a corrosive sense of alienation and hostility toward the criminal justice system as blacks perceive unfairness.

Following guidelines recommended by the Sentencing Commission, Attorney General Janet Reno is proposing that the sentencing disparity be reduced from 100-to-1 to 10-to-1 and that the triggering threshold be raised from 5 grams of crack to 25 grams.

Under Reno's proposal, the five-year sentence would kick in for carrying 25 grams of crack or 250 grams of powder.

With 25 grams still constituting less than an ounce of crack, raising the threshold would follow the recommendations of prosecutors and judges who feel it would give them more discretion in making drug punishments fit the crime.

Citing the pharmacological equivalence of crack and powder, some favor eliminating the disparity altogether. However, the undeniable violence associated with the crack trade -- a violence that wracks black neighborhoods and threatens innocent African-Americans -- justifies some measure of harsher punishment. The Reno proposal sounds about right.

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