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Yes: Should Congress refuse to shorten sentences for crack?

President Clinton has announced that he will ask Congress to relax sentences for trafficking in crack cocaine. We are writing to congressional leaders to warn them that the president's proposal is bad policy and should be rejected out of hand.

It seems obvious that crack sentences should not be reduced, given crack's disastrous impact on vulnerable inner-city populations, including an unprecedented proportion of female addicts.Crack dealers have destroyed the fabric of peace and harmony in inner-city communities all over America. Crack use is associated with the explosion of especially horrifying child abuse cases in recent years. Many crack sellers are remorseless killers and need to be taken off the streets.

Nor are crack sentences excessive in any absolute sense. A crack dealer has to traffic at least 50 grams - approximately 1,500 "rocks" - to trigger the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. Selling 1,500 rocks of crack is an offense that easily merits 10 years in jail. Indeed, the United States Sentencing Commission reports that the typical dealer convicted under federal law last year was caught selling 109 grams of crack - the equivalent of more than 3,000 rocks. Federal crack defendants are also more likely than any other category of federal drug defendant to have a serious criminal history.

Crack sentences are not, as commonly believed, 100 times more severe than those for powder cocaine, that widely cited figure is based on a misunderstanding of the statute. In fact, crack sentences range between two and six times longer than for a comparable quantity of powder.

The Rev. Eugene Rivers, is co-chairman of the National Ten Point Leadership Foundation in inner-city Boston. As the Rev. Rivers sees it: "To confuse the concerns of crack dealers with the broader interests of the black community is at best inane and at worst immoral. Those who are straining to live in inner-city neighborhoods that are most adversely affected by the plague of crack, and who witness crack's consequences firsthand, want (crack dealers) taken off the streets for the longest period of time possible."

We associate ourselves with the remarks of the Rev. Rivers. Our urban communities want crack dealing in their neighborhoods to stop. Congress should do nothing to undermine their efforts.