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Democratic Congress to Revisit Mandatory Minimums

Join Together, January 2, 2007

News Summary

The new Democrat-led Congress is expected to reopen the long debate over mandatory minimum sentences, including those that apply to drug-related crimes, the Wall Street Journal reported Dec. 26.

Key lawmaker Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.) have signaled their intention to hold hearings on mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenses. Conyers said that the current sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine offenses -- crack offenders face much harsher penalties -- is the "most outrageous example of the unfairness of mandatory minimums."

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is expected to recommend changes to the crack-cocaine penalties; the commission has called for reforms of mandatory-sentencing laws for years but got no response from the previously Republican-controlled Congress. Democrats may be more willing to act, but could face opposition from police and criticism that they are "soft" on crime. On the other hand, efforts to cut recidivism have cut across party lines in recent years.

"Our position on crack versus powder has been to increase the penalty for powder cocaine, not decrease the punishment for crack," said Gene Voegtlin of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. James Pasco of the Fraternal Order of Police also said that his group supports tougher sentences for crack. "We're not opposing this because of its impact on law enforcement. We're opposing this because of its impact on the communities we protect," he said.

"The sentencing disparity between possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine is a valid issue, and I look forward to a discussion next year," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). "But we need to remember that the drug trade is directly linked to the level of violent crime in America ... We need tough drug laws that deter drug abuse -- not increase it."