A judge in Sioux City is drawning national attention for equalizing the penalties for those caught dealing crack and powder cocaine.
Under federal law, someone accused of dealing five grams of crack can get a five-year sentence, while someone dealing powder cocaine would have to be caught with 500 grams to get the same, five-year sentence.
Court watchers believe Judge Mark Bennett has become the first federal judge in the country to base sentences for crack cocaine offenses using the guidelines for those caught with powder cocaine, significantly lowering the prison time for crack dealers.
"Many federal judges thought that the 100-to-one ratio created too much disparity," Bennett says. "The impact was to be highly-discriminatory towards African Americans." So,
Bennett’s sentences for crack dealers are now in line with those who deal powder cocaine. A few years ago, Bennett gave a crack dealer a much more lenient sentence — not quite as lenient as his recent sentences — and that case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"The United States Supreme Court said that district court judges, if we wanted to, had a right to disagree with the (sentencing) guidelines if we had policy differences," Bennett says. "And so I decided that the fairest thing to do would be to go to a one-to-one ratio."
So, Bennett is now sentencing crack and powder cocaine dealers on equal terms rather than imposing the significantly-longer sentences on those caught with crack. Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University criminal law professor who has been following this issue, says Bennett has taken a significant step.
"For quite some time just about everybody has expressed dissatisfaction with the 100-to-one status quo," Berman says. "Now, there’s a tangible and quite forceful statement of, ‘Hey, look! We as judges are taking this into our own hands.’"
Congress is considering bills that would equalize the penalties for dealing crack and powder cocaine.
Bennett, a 1975 graduate of Drake Law School, was appointed a federal judge for the Northern District of Iowa in 1994.