WASHINGTON -- President Clinton signed into law yesterday a bill to continue punishing crack-cocaine crimes far more severely than powder-cocaine crimes -- a difference that civil rights activists say is racist.
"I am not going to let anyone who peddles drugs get the idea that the cost of doing business is going down," Mr. Clinton said in nullifying a plan by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make punishments the same for crack cocaine and powdered cocaine.
As a result, those convicted of crack crimes -- mainly blacks -- will receive the same punishments as those who deal in much greater amounts of powder cocaine. The president, defending hTC the difference, said inner-city communities are hit much harder by crack-related violence.
The president acted within hours after the Supreme Court, at the Justice Department's request, agreed to consider giving federal prosecutors wide discretion to pursue crack cases, even if that means convicting a disproportionate number of blacks.
Yesterday's developments appeared certain to intensify the debate over allegations of racism in the prosecution of dealers and users of crack cocaine, a cheap alternative to powder cocaine.
Blacks account for more than 80 percent of those convicted of crack crimes; whites account for less than 5 percent. By contrast, whites are involved in 32 percent of powder-cocaine convictions; blacks, 27 percent, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
But blacks tend to receive longer sentences for crack cocaine crimes than whites do for powder-cocaine crimes; federal law for years has provided much heavier sentences for crimes that involve crack cocaine, and Mr. Clinton's signature yesterday maintained that difference.
The punishment difference of 100 to 1 works this way: Crimes involving 1 gram of crack get mandatory sentences equal to crimes involving 100 grams of powder.
Civil rights leaders have protested that this approach results in a serious racial disparity in cocaine prosecutions. That disparity was one of the grievances cited by inmates in a recent series of federal prison uprisings.
Last spring, after a study of the sentencing differences and their effect on blacks, the federal Sentencing Commission decided to make sentencing equal for crack and powder cocaine crimes. Congress passed a bill to block the commission's plan from going into effect tomorrow, and Mr. Clinton's signature made the bill a law.
"Trafficking in crack, and the violence it fosters," the president said, "has a devastating impact on communities across America, especially inner-city communities. Tough penalties for crack trafficking are required because of the effect on individuals and families, related gang activity, turf battles and other violence."
Mr. Clinton took note of the "substantial disparity" in sentencing for crack crimes and said "some adjustment is warranted." He said the Sentencing Commission would study the issue further.
Civil rights organizations had led a telephone campaign to pressure the president to veto the bill. At a rally last week in Chicago, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said that Mr. Clinton had the chance, "with one stroke of your veto pen, to correct the most grievous racial injustice built into our legal system."
Crack cocaine is made from powder in a process that requires baking soda, water and a stove or a microwave oven. The Sentencing Commission has argued that powder and crack cocaine are merely different forms of the same drug. The Justice Department, however, argues that crack should be punished more severely because crack crimes contribute more heavily to violence in the poor communities targeted by narcotics dealers.
Several constitutional challenges to the cocaine-sentencing differences are in the federal courts. The Supreme Court two years ago turned down the first such challenge to reach it, thus leaving the dispute to unfold in lower courts.
Yesterday, however, the justices agreed to take on a related facet of the racism claim. The case involves five black Los Angeles men who were indicted on charges of crack distribution. They were prosecuted in a case growing out of a federal-state task force.
Claiming that their prosecution was based on race, and citing statistics showing the high rate of crack cases against blacks, the five men contended that the charges had to be thrown out as biased.
Federal prosecutors denied the claim of racism, but they balked at demands by the judge for information about how they decided to prosecute cocaine cases.
As a result, the judge threw out the charges. The federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld that decision in March, saying that judges must be "vigilant in ensuring that impermissible prosecutorial biases do not remain hidden in files kept from public view."
A Supreme Court ruling is expected by next summer.
In other Supreme Court action yesterday, the justices cleared the way for the U.S. Corps of Engineers to enforce federal water-pollution controls even on small farm ponds, connected to no other waterways, if those ponds are visited by migratory birds.
Over the lone dissent of Justice Clarence Thomas, the court turned aside a challenge to a Corps of Engineers rule that extends the Clean Water Act to any waters used by migratory birds.
In Maryland, Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesmen said the court's action would have little effect in the state because those agencies have not relied on migratory waterfowl as a basis for monitoring pollution of wetlands.
The court's refusal to disturb the Corps of Engineers policy won praise, however, from environmental groups. Up to 40 percent of the nation's 100 million acres of wetlands are isolated and thus would come under the Corps' migratory bird rule, according to Douglas Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation.
Timothy B. Wheeler