Officials Urge Reduced U.S. Penalties for Crack Cocaine

From a Times Staff Writer

After years of debate about the harshness of the nation's crack cocaine sentencing laws, federal authorities Tuesday recommended that Congress reconsider the controversial penalties which have punished many crack users and street-level dealers more severely than major traffickers of powder cocaine.

In its long-awaited report, the U.S. Sentencing Commission told legislators that they should rethink a sentencing policy blamed repeatedly for vast inequities in the way crack and powder cocaine offenses are punished in federal court.

Under mandatory sentencing requirements passed by Congress in 1986, defendants convicted of selling five grams of crack cocaine receive the same five-year prison term as someone convicted of selling 500 grams, or half a kilogram, of powder cocaine.

"We are saying that to have such a distinction between crack and powder cocaine is not fair and it is not punishing the more culpable. Sometimes it is punishing the least culpable much more severely," said Commission Chairman Richard P. Conaboy, a federal district judge in Scranton, Pa.

Commissioners forwarded their 250-page report to Congress, which ordered the examination of the nation's crack laws in the 1994 crime bill. Conaboy said his agency has yet to develop specific recommendations, and any change in the government's sentencing policy could be at least a year away.

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