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June 2002

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


U.S. Sentencing Commission Urges Changes in Federal Cocaine Sentencing Policy

The chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Judge Diana E. Murphy (8th Cir.) appeared before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs last month to outline the Commission's recommendations on cocaine sentencing. The Commission has released a 112-page report advocating a reassessment of federal cocaine penalties. The report, entitled Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy, is available online at http://www.ussc.gov/r_congress/02crack/2002crackrpt.htm.

In her testimony, Murphy asked Congress to modify federal drug laws to target the most dangerous offenders for greater punishment while also addressing the wide disparity in treatment between crack and powder cocaine. Current laws treat trafficking and possession of crack significantly more severely than powder cocaine. The Commission's extensive review of literature on such issues as the addictiveness of cocaine; its own study of federal cocaine offenders; a survey of state sentencing policies, public comment on current policy; and testimony at hearings from the medical and scientific communities, and federal and local law enforcement officials, have caused the Commission to conclude that the cocaine penalty structure can be improved significantly.

"[T]he Commission unanimously agreed that at this time we can best facilitate congressional consideration of the proposed statutory and guideline changes," said Murphy, "by submitting recommendations to Congress first, then working with Congress to implement appropriate modifications to the penalty structure."

The Commission recommends that Congress adopt the following three-pronged approach to revise federal cocaine sentencing policy:

(1) Increase the five-year mandatory minimum threshold quantity for crack cocaine offenses to at least 25 grams, and the 10-year threshold quantity to at least 250 grams (and repeal the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine).

(2) Direct the Commission to provide appropriate sentencing enhancements in the primary drug trafficking guideline, USSG ยง2D1.1, to account for certain aggravating conduct.

(3) Maintain the mandatory minimum penalties for powder cocaine offenses at their current levels, with the understanding that the proposed guideline sentencing enhancements would apply to powder cocaine offenses.