Sensible Sentences

ANGER over drug sentences is thought to have sparked recent riots in the federal prison system. The specific complaint: the gap between penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

That gap is a legitimate concern, and not just because some prisoners decided to get into fights and set fires. It's part of a much larger problem. Mandatory drug sentences are defying concepts of fairness, stuffing inmates into both federal and state prisons, and driving up the taxpayers' tab for incarceration.

First, crack versus powder. Crack, which has devastated inner-city neighborhoods, carries a much stiffer sentence. People convicted of possessing five grams of crack get a minimum prison term of five years. It takes 500 grams of powder to draw the same sentence.

Those serving time for crack tend to be disproportionately black, reflecting the urban environs where the drug is most prevalent and where police raids occur. Powder is more in use among whites. The racial coloring of the sentencing disparity has generated repeated calls for its elimination. The Supreme Court has agreed to take a case involving the allegation that crack laws target blacks. The Federal Sentencing Commission recommended that penalties for possession of crack and powder be equalized.

Both Congress and the Clinton administration have rejected that recommendation - the first thumbs-down among hundreds of commission suggestions. Their reasons are, first of all, political. Politicians don't want to enter an election year dragging a vote or decision that could be construed as ''soft on crime.''

But politics isn't the whole explanation. Crack, which is smoked, is a far more potent form of cocaine than powder. Even a relatively small quantity can be divided into vials and dealt on the street. So the five gram amount may indicate more than a casual user. Hence the tough sentence.

That rationale, however, does not outweigh the racial taint associated with the current policy. The sentencing gap should, at the least, be narrowed. Even better, the whole realm of drug sentencing should be resurveyed with an eye to making penalties fit the crime. Current mandatory sentencing can put even minor offenders - such as someone who drove a friend to a drug deal, or who happened to live in the same house as a dealer - behind bars for years, at a huge cost to the public.

Long prison terms are in line for those proven to be profiting from addiction. For many others involved with drugs, a combination of shorter terms, probation, and treatment is appropriate - even if politically out of favor.

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