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Ending Drug Sentencing Disparity: The Republican Remix

Do you have a nickel handy? Go ahead, pick it up. Hold it in your hand. Now imagine that for holding that nickel, you could be put into prison for 40 years.

For some years now, people have been pointing out the glaring disparity between prison sentences for powder cocaine and crack cocaine. If a person is caught possessing just 5 grams of crack cocaine, and if a prosecutor can convince a jury that the person might have wanted to give that crack to someone else, that person can be sentenced to 40 years in federal prison. 5 grams is the weight of a nickel. Thanks to the imbalanced drug sentencing laws, a person would have to be caught holding 100 times as much powder cocaine to get that same sentence. This disparity in sentencing reflects the crack scare of the 1980s, not current science: it turns out that crack cocaine is no more addictive than cocaine in its powder form.

There are bills out there, like S. 1789 in the Senate and H.R. 3245 in the House, which seek to eliminate the disparity by raising the amount of crack a person has to be carrying to trigger nearly life-long imprisonment. These bills are slowly, slowly making their way through Congress.

And then there’s the Republican version of equality. Congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland proposes a new law, H.R. 18: the Powder-Crack Cocaine Penalty Equalization Act of 2009. The title makes it sound good, but read beyond the title and you’ll find out that equalization is not always a good thing. Instead of reducing sentences for possession of crack now that the uninformed hysteria of the 1980s has passed, Bartlett would reach equality by spreading the hysteria around. H.R. 18, if passed, would increase the sentence for possessing powder cocaine to the match the crazy-long sentences for people caught with crack.

I’m trying to figure out how this kind of policy translates into a campaign slogan for Roscoe Bartlett and his fellow Republicans who’ve signed on to this bill as cosponsors. How about $50 Billion for Prisons is Not Enough? Or maybe Prisoners Per Capita: Let’s Keep America On Top! There are so many possibilities; I’m sure that if Rep. Bartlett puts his mind to it he can come up with something really catchy.

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