A federal judge who was a top drug policy adviser in the early 1990s and supported harsher penalties for crack cocaine crimes said Tuesday the policy had gone too far and was hurting faith in the judicial system.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton told the U.S. Sentencing Commission that federal laws requiring dramatically longer sentences for crack cocaine than for cocaine powder were "unconscionable" and contributed to the perception in minority communities that courts are unfair.
"I never thought that the disparity should be as severe as it has become," said Walton, who serves in Washington.
The current law includes what critics have called the 100-to-1 disparity: Trafficking in 5 grams of cocaine gets a mandatory five-year prison sentence, but it takes 500 grams of cocaine powder to get the same sentence.
People who want the law changed point to crime statistics that show crack is more of an inner-city drug while cocaine powder is used more often in the suburbs.
The Sentencing Commission, which has recommended three times that Congress narrow the sentencing gap, is again reviewing the disparity. Previous recommendations, which included raising the penalties for powder cocaine and lowering them for crack, were not adopted.
The current administration of President Bush indicated Tuesday it welcomed a discussion about the sentencing disparity but opposed lowering the penalties for crack. The Justice Department says crack is more addictive and easier to sell in small doses, leading to increased violence and a greater health impact.
The Justice Department also urged the Sentencing Commission only to make recommendations to Congress and not to rewrite sentencing guidelines.
Walton said the law was not intended to target poor people or minorities. But with a disproportionately high number of minorities in prison and potential jurors openly hesitating to convict drug offenders because of concerns over the fairness of the system, Walton said the problem must be addressed.