President Barack Obama’s request that Congress eliminate the disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses would abolish a clearly discriminatory law. In general, the Obama administration seems to be taking a more fact-based and less ideological approach to drug enforcement, a welcome change from decades of elected officials upping the ante on sentencing to prove who’s the toughest on crime at election time.

President Barack Obama’s request that Congress eliminate the disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses would abolish a clearly discriminatory law.


In general, the Obama administration seems to be taking a more fact-based and less ideological approach to drug enforcement, a welcome change from decades of elected officials upping the ante on sentencing to prove who’s the toughest on crime at election time.


The result of that has been 500,000 people imprisoned in the United States for drug crimes, more than all of more-populated Western Europe combined for all other crimes, according to the Drug Policy Alliance Network, a critic of U.S. policy.


A rethinking of the war on drugs (a term rejected last week by Obama’s drug czar) has been slowly occurring since the late 1990s, as many have questioned its efficacy at reducing drug use and the human cost of sending so many to prison.


A change in U.S. sentencing law for crack and powder cocaine is critical because of the racial disparity in sentencing. Many view the current law as unfair and racist. It is. Consider:


* In 2006, 82 percent of those convicted of federal crack cocaine crimes were black.


* The same year, 58 percent of those convicted of power cocaine crimes were Hispanic, 27 percent were black and 14 percent were white.


* A person caught with 5,000 grams of powder cocaine will get 10 years in prison. The same sentence is triggered for those with only 50 grams of crack.


Congress set the penalties this way because it believed there was a link between violence and crack, a link disputed by U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at a recent congressional hearing on the subject. Durbin voted for the laws creating the disparity.


“We were mistaken,” Walton said. “There’s no greater violence in cases before me.”


“Each of the myths upon which we based the disparity has since been dispelled or altered,” Durbin said. “Crack-related violence has decreased significantly since the 1980s, and today 94 percent of crack cocaine cases don’t involve violence at all.”


Eliminating disproportionate sentences will no doubt be a tough vote for Congress, with members who do so subjecting themselves to the tired old charge that they are soft on crime. But it’s time for some political courage.


The nation’s drug policy should weigh fairness, health, treatment and the cost of incarceration with the need for punishment. Obama’s policies are moving the nation in that direction.


State Journal-Register