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Bring Crack Penalties Into Line

April 19, 2005

GREATER HARTFORD -- After a year's delay, the General Assembly seems on its way to correcting a longstanding inequity that has unnecessarily contributed to jail crowding.

By a vote of 24 to 13, the Judiciary Committee last week approved an amendment to last year's law to reduce prison crowding. The change ends the disparity in sentencing for possession of crack cocaine and powdered cocaine.

Current law specifies that a person arrested for selling or possessing a half gram of crack, a refined form of cocaine, faces the same mandatory minimum sentence of five to 20 years in jail and a maximum life term as someone who sells or possesses an ounce of pure cocaine. A half gram of crack, which in Hartford sells for about $15, is 1/56th of an ounce of cocaine. Cocaine sells for about $800 an ounce.

Under the amendment, a person would have to possess an ounce of crack to trigger the same penalty as applies for having an ounce of cocaine.

Although few if any defendants are ever convicted under the current crack statute, prosecutors use its tough penalties to intimidate scores of street addicts - people who really should be in treatment centers and mental hospitals - to plead to reduced charges that carry a minimum mandatory sentence of three years of jail time. The practice contributes appreciably to prison crowding.

Legal and academic experts, including Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano, have for about a decade advocated equalizing the sentence. But last year, lawmakers killed the amendment for fear of appearing soft on crime.

This year, fortified with research and a grassroots lobbying effort by Hartford-based Create Change and The Alliance of Connecticut, legislators on the committee approved the bill overwhelmingly.

The full legislature and Gov. M. Jodi Rell should follow suit.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.

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