The biggest difference between crack and powder cocaine is who uses it: The former has traditionally been the vice of African Americans; the latter (more expensive) version the choice of whites and Hispanics. But while possession of just 5 grams of crack carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison, it takes 500 grams of cocaine to trigger the same punishment.
That infamous disparity might be history next week, when President Obama is expected to sign into law the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Today, in a San Francisco Chronicle editorial, Stanford psychiatrist Keith Humphreys, PhD, applauds the landmark step, the effects of which he says "will be greatly magnified if the states - most especially California - follow suit:"
The new law eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for crack possession outright and raises the amount required for a drug dealing sentence to 28 grams. Reducing criminal penalties is among the hardest things for legislators to do, so great is the fear of being labeled soft on crime. Like junior high kids at a prom, every one looks around anxiously hoping that someone else will have the courage to get on the dance floor first. Give credit to Senate Judiciary Committee members such as Jeff Sessions, Patrick Leahy, Orrin Hatch and Dick Durbin, who had to dance alone for a number of years until their colleagues flooded the floor.
But the states must now join the dance, because they and not the federal government operate the vast bulk of prisons. California's prison system alone almost equals the entire federal system in prison population. One contributor to the enormous number of people incarcerated is that California law sentences cocaine-related crimes more harshly when the drug is in crack (three-to-five-year sentence) versus powder form (two-to-four-year sentence).
Humphreys just returned to Stanford from a one-year stint in Washington as a senior advisor to the president on national drug control policy.
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