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Clinton to Sign Bill Preserving Stiff Penalties for Crack : Drugs: It would block a move to treat powdered cocaine violations equally. Opponents see a bias, since most of those facing the tougher terms are black.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

One week after President Clinton decried the “disproportionate percentage” of young black men going to prison, he has decided to sign into law a bill that would maintain stiff prison sentences for those caught with small amounts of crack cocaine.

The legislation would block a move by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make prison terms the same for violations involving crack and powdered cocaine. While virtually all of those prosecuted for crack are black, powdered cocaine is used more by whites.

Speakers at last week’s “Million Man March” blamed racially biased federal drug laws for the fact that the nation’s prisons are so full. The Congressional Black Caucus told Clinton this week that the drug-law issue marks the “first test” of whether the Administration wants to end racism in the criminal justice system.

Under current federal law, people who are caught with just five grams of crack must be sentenced to five years in prison but it takes 500 grams of powdered cocaine to get the same five-year sentence.

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White House aides said that Clinton will preserve the harsher penalties for crack cocaine because he believes it takes a greater toll on communities through violence and gang activity.

However, at the same time Clinton signs the bill into law, he will emphasize that he supports its provision calling for further study to see whether sentences for crack cocaine should be adjusted downward.

Aides said that Clinton may quietly sign the bill into law as early as today.

“This is a total political call on their part,” said an official at the Sentencing Commission. “They are not going to do anything that will make the President look bad on the crime issue.”

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The stiff drug laws, passed after the 1986 death of basketball star Len Bias, targeted crack cocaine and imposed mandatory prison terms for both possession and trafficking. No similar mandatory sentences are imposed on users of other dangerous drugs, including heroin or LSD.

In May, the Sentencing Commission, made up of federal judges and legal experts, voted to make equal the penalties for the two types of cocaine, which are essentially the same substance. Under this approach, people caught with tiny amounts of crack should get probation or at most a few months in prison, so long as they did not have a gun or engage in violence, the panel said.

But on Oct. 18, two days after the huge march of black men in Washington, the House voted, 332 to 83, to reject that recommendation. The Senate had done the same three weeks earlier. The votes marked the first time in the commission’s seven-year history that Congress has moved to block one of its sentencing proposals from taking effect.

Republican floor leaders said that they oppose any retreat on drug laws and argued that crack is exceedingly potent and dangerous.

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“Crack cocaine is more psychologically addicting than powdered cocaine. It produces a more intense high. It is popular with teen-agers and it is most likely to be associated with violent crimes, burglaries, carjackings, drive-by shootings, whatever,” said Rep. Ed Bryant (R-Tenn.).

But black lawmakers argued that the current approach unfairly punishes the poor.

“If somebody is convicted of selling $225 worth of crack cocaine, they get the same penalty as somebody who sells $50,000 worth of powder cocaine,” said Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.). “Poor young kids who can afford only crack go to jail. Rich young kids who can afford powder cocaine go home and sleep in their own beds.”

The House vote was blamed for triggering weekend prison riots at four federal penitentiaries.

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In a letter sent Wednesday, the Congressional Black Caucus called on Clinton to veto the bill. That move would allow the Sentencing Commission proposal to take effect on Nov. 1.

“These disparities [between crack and powder cocaine] make a mockery of justice,” the caucus said. It is “the first test of our seriousness . . . to aggressively root out and eliminate policies and practices that are patently unfair” to African Americans, the 20 members of Congress said.

In the last four years, 96% of those prosecuted in federal court for crack cocaine crimes were blacks or Latinos.

Both Clinton and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno have made clear that they are aware of the issue and troubled by the impact of harsh drug laws on young black men.

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On the day of the “Million Man March,” Clinton spoke on race relations in Austin, Tex., and condemned the “disproportionate percentage [of black men who are in prison for drug crimes] in comparison to the percentage of blacks who use drugs in our society.”

“Blacks are right to think something is terribly wrong,” Clinton said, “when almost one in three African American men in their 20s are either in jail, on parole or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system.”

On Thursday, Reno said that she favors the move to make the drug sentences equal but argued that the issue should be studied more.

“Clearly I think it should be equalized with respect to possession offenses. I don’t think the 100-to-1 ratio is fair,” Reno said at a news conference.

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She added, however: “I want to hear from all concerned as to what the appropriate ratio might be [for crack trafficking]. I have not come up with a firm recommendation.”

For more than two years, Reno has repeated the same view. She has said that she is opposed to the harsh mandatory drug laws, but has also refused to support any change.


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