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State lawmakers review ‘cocaine equality’

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | FEBRUARY 20, 2009 7:34 AM

A proposal in the Iowa Legislature would equalize the penalties for powder and crack cocaine, but opponents worry it will do little more than increase prison populations.

Under current law, sentences for crack cocaine are more severe than those for the powder variety.

While possession of between 100 and 500 grams of powder cocaine constitutes a Class B felony, only 10 to 50 grams of crack is required for the same charge. A Class B felony is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

“It’s an underlying fairness issue in the statute,” said Gary Kendell, the director of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, in discussing the proposal.

The bill, which would raise penalties for powder-cocaine possession in order to equalize punishment for the offenses, is garnering support from state officials.

“It’s an attempt to address that unfairness without compromising public safety,” Kendell said.
Critics of the current statute contend it creates ethnic and class disparity. It’s argued that crack cocaine is possessed more often by those of a lower socioeconomic status than those who use powder cocaine.

Legislators approved a similar bill in 2003, but that bill set penalties to their current levels. Before that bill, there had been an even greater disparity, Kendell said.

In December 2007, the U.S. Sentencing Commission amended the federal sentencing guidelines, reducing the length of sentences for crack cocaine. But it didn’t erase the disparity entirely.

The main opposition to this bill centers on concerns of how it may affect already burgeoning prison populations.

“I think the logic is actually backwards. They should be reducing the penalty for crack cocaine,” Iowa City attorney Adam Pollack said. “In today’s world of massive prison populations, I think we need to be reducing that population, not increasing it.”

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said that on the county level, he doesn’t think the proposal would have a significant effect on jail overcrowding. He pointed out that large-scale seizures often get taken federally, so the proposal shouldn’t have a major effect on state prisons.

“I think the projected increase in population is overstated,” Kendell said. “I don’t think one can say with certainty that it will have that effect.”

A judge has complete discretion over whether to send an offender to prison or give her or him probation, Kendell said. And while somebody who would have gone to prison regardless may have to serve a longer time, offenders rarely serve their full sentences. So although penalties might increase by years on paper, in reality people may only serve a few extra months, he said.

According to reports from the Iowa Department of Public Safety, 842 people were charged with possession or use of cocaine in 2007, and 234 were charged with manufacturing or distributing the drug.

Arrests for powder cocaine increased 54 percent between 2002 and 2007. Arrests for crack increased between 2002 and 2005 but have dropped 36 percent since then, the report said.
Pulkrabek said it makes sense to make the penalties the same, and Pollack agrees.

“I don’t know that someone on crack does more societal damage than someone on cocaine,” Pollack said.


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