Friday, March 23, 2007

A Crack in the System

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is preparing to meet to discuss the wisdom of current federal sentencing guidelines covering the possession of crack cocaine. Now 20 years old, the guidelines set a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for possession of five grams of crack (about 10 to 50 doses). The same five-year penalty is triggered for the sale of powder cocaine only when an offense involves 500 grams (2,500-5,000 doses) -- 100 times the minimum quantity for crack.

The ramifications of the law are obvious. For the past two decades jails and prisons across the country have been filled to capacity with low-level dealers and users, while kingpins continue to escape justice. According to data from The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, a sampling of those incarcerated under the guidelines in 2000 showed roughly 66 percent were low-level street dealers, while only half-of-one percent qualified as “high-level” suppliers.

As a result, an entire generation of young, poor, mostly black men is spending large chunks of time behind bars, some for no more than holding a few rocks.

In three previous reports to Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has called for less severe penalties for crack cocaine defendants. As far back as 1995, the Commission wrote in its report to Congress:

Such a vast difference in the quantity of drug necessary to trigger the same sentence would be acceptable if the threat of increased dangers and harms created by crack versus powder cocaine appeared commensurate. Yet, even though crack is arguably more addictive than powder, when the latter is only snorted, the Commission cannot say that the increased likelihood of dependency or binge use posed by crack is commensurate with a ratio differential as great as 100-to-1.

Proponents of reform include the American Bar Association, advocacy groups, academics and lawmakers. The Sentencing Project issued this briefing sheet on the issue.


Monday, March 19, 2007

The End of Free TV?

from The San Francisco Chronicle March 13, 2007

Consumers who depend on old-fashioned antennas to watch television won't miss the 2009 Super Bowl, but their analog sets will stop working soon afterward.

Analog TVs will no longer receive a signal come Feb. 19, 2009, unless users update their hardware to receive a digital signal.

Federal officials announced details Monday about how that transition will work, saying the government will help consumers buy the necessary equipment to upgrade to digital -- a converter box that attaches to the TV set.

The Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said it is setting aside $990 million to pay for the boxes. Each home can request up to two $40 coupons for a digital-to-analog converter box, which consumer electronics makers such as RCA and LG plan to produce. Prices for the box have not been determined, but industry and consumer groups have estimated they will run $50 to $75 each.

"Besides our own consumer education efforts, NTIA is working with partners such as broadcasters, consumer electronics retailers, manufacturers and consumer organizations to reach out to those most in need of the coupon program," said the telecommunication administration's Assistant Secretary for Communication and Information John Kneuer. "We welcome partners and ask that interested parties contact our office at (202) 482-6260 to learn how they can help inform the public about the coupon program."

An estimated 20 million consumers in the United States depend on a free, over-the-air signal for television. Another 15 million might have cable or satellite television service but have extra sets in their home that aren't hooked up and depend on their antennas for service. ...More

Friday, March 16, 2007


Anti-casino activists in Philadelphia won an important victory yesterday when City Council voted unanimously in favor of a referendum to ask voters in the May 15 primary whether the city charter should be amended to ban the building of casinos within 1,500 feet of homes, churches and schools. The vote could potentially halt plans by two investor groups -- Foxwoods and Sugarhouse -- to build casinos on the Delaware waterfront. At the very least, it will stall those plans.

In a statement on its website, the group Neighbors Allied for the Best Waterfront said the vote marked "a landmark day for the quality of public debate and civic process in Philadelphia."

I wrote about the casino debate for the Philadelphia Tribune in January. For background on the anti-casino movement, check out that article here.

Sierra Club