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New Law May Eliminate Differences in Sentencing Between Crack Cocaine Cases and Powder Cocaine Cases

The U.S. Department of Justice under the Obama administration has indicated an opposition to the current disparities between sentences in crack cocaine cases versus powder cocaine cases in the federal criminal system. Currently, as a result of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, mandatory sentences in federal criminal cases are harsher for crack cocaine cases than powder cocaine cases. This is true even though crack cocaine and powder cocaine are basically the same. The primary difference is that crack comes in a form that is smoked while cocaine comes in a form that is snorted.

The difference in federal sentences for these two drug crimes has had a major effect on who has been going to prison for long periods of time as opposed to getting relatively minor sentences. For instance, a person convicted of the crime of distributing 5 grams of crack cocaine faces a mandatory sentence of 5 years in prison while it would take the distribution of 500 grams of powder cocaine to get the same mandatory sentence in federal court. Studies show that crack cocaine is more often used by lower income individuals and minorities. In fact, more than 80% of the people prosecuted for crack cocaine charges in federal court are African-American, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

No law has yet passed to address the difference in sentencing between crack cocaine crimes and powder cocaine crimes in federal court. However, there is clearly a shift in criminal and sentencing policies with the Obama administration and some indication that a new law will be passed to eliminate this difference.