Over the years, the mandatory sentences associated with the war on drugs have created more problems than they've solved. Consider the federally set penalties for possession or use of cocaine, in powder or "crack" (smokable) form.
A small amount of crack (5 grams) draws the same minimum five-year prison term as 100 times that amount (500 grams) of powder. The rationale for this was the violence linked to crack, which swept onto American streets in the '80s.
Since crack is primarily an inner-city, low-income addiction, the mandatory sentencing has meant a greatly increased flow of poor black and Hispanic citizens into United States prisons. Powder cocaine is the choice of wealthier, often white drug users. Protests over the unequal justice inherent in the current law have been loud and persistent.
Federal officials have now begun to respond. Attorney General Janet Reno and drug czar Barry McCaffrey have proposed a significant narrowing of the sentencing disparity between crack and powder. They recommend changing the kick-in amounts for a five-year sentence to 25 grams and 250 grams, respectively. President Clinton agrees with them.
Change is overdue. Crack-related violence has declined, weakening that rationale. Most important, the discriminatory impact of the sentencing disparity damages the credibility of law enforcement efforts against drugs.
Narrowing the gap makes sense. Eliminating it makes better sense. Congress should recognize this and avoid making the Reno-McCaffrey proposal into another "Who's toughest on drugs?" diversion.