Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

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This Year's Top 10 Domestic Drug Policy Stories

A lot went on in the realm of drug policy reform in 2010. Here is our summation of what we think are the biggest stories of the year.

fire truck lent by Dr. Bronner's for SSDP/Prop 19 campus tour
Marijuana on the Verge -- Prop 19, Public Opinion, and the Looming Sea Change

California's tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative, Proposition 19, ultimately failed to get over the top on Election Day, but it garnered 46.5% of the vote, the highest ever for a legalization initiative, and generated reams of media coverage, making it the most watched initiative of any in the land this year. The battle for Prop 19 also yielded the broadest coalition yet behind marijuana legalization, as unions, dissident law enforcement groups, and Latino and African-American groups got on the legalization bandwagon in a big way for the first time. Launched with over a million dollars of funding from Oakland cannabis entrepreneur Richard Lee, the initiative garnered significant additional support during the campaign's final months, including a late $1 million donation from George Soros, but too little and too late to make a difference in the nation's largest and most expensive media market. The coalition that came together around Prop 19 is vowing to stay together and work to place another initiative on the ballot, most likely in 2012.

If California has legalization on the ballot in 2012, activists in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington all took steps this year to ensure that it won't be alone. Ill-funded and controversial legalization initiatives missed making the ballot in Oregon and Washington this year, but organizers in both states have vowed to try again, and Sensible Washington, the folks behind this year's effort there, already have a pro-legalization billboard up on I-5 in the Seattle area. In Colorado, organizers bided their time this year amidst the medical marijuana explosion there, but are busy laying the groundwork for a legalization initiative there.

This year also saw a legalization bill pass out of the California Assembly Public Safety Committee in January, a first in the US. While that bill died later in the session, sponsor Tom Ammiano (D-SF), reintroduced it in March and it awaits further consideration in Sacramento. In New Hampshire, a decriminalization bill passed the House in March, only to be killed in a Senate committee in April, while in Washington state, legalization and decriminalization bills got a January hearing before dying in committee later that same month. In Rhode Island, a decriminalization bill was introduced in February and a state legislative commission endorsed it in March, but the bill went nowhere so far. Later in the year, the California legislature passed and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a decriminalization bill there. And in November, a marijuana legalization bill passed the House in the US territory of the Northern Marianas Islands, marking the first time a legalization bill has passed a legislative chamber anywhere in the US. It was later defeated in the Senate. No legalization or decriminalization bills passed this year, but the day is drawing near.

A plethora of public opinion polls this year suggest why, as support for pot legalization is now hovering just under 50%. In January, an ABC News/Washington Post poll had support at 46%; in April, a Pew poll had it at 41%. By July, an Angus-Reid poll had support at 52%, while Rasmussen showed it at 43%. In November, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 46%, its highest level ever and a 15 percentage point increase over just a decade ago. Some of these polls showed majority support for legalization in the West, which will be put to the test in 2012.

Medical Marijuana -- the Ongoing Battle

The acceptance of medical marijuana continued in 2010, as two states, New Jersey and Arizona, along with the District of Columbia, became the latest to legalize the medicinal use of the herb. It's worth noting, however, that medical marijuana is not yet being produced or consumed in any of those places, even though the New Jersey legislation was signed into law in January and the DC medical marijuana initiative was actually revived last year. To be fair, voters only approved the Arizona initiative in November, and regulators there have three more months to come up with enabling regulations.

But the acceptance is by no means complete, and resistance from recalcitrant law enforcement and local governments continues apace. A medical marijuana initiative in South Dakota and an Oregon initiative to create a system of state-licensed, nonprofit dispensaries both failed in November. And despite efforts to pass medical marijuana bills through numerous state legislatures, none beside New Jersey came to fruition this year. Bills have stalled in Alabama, Illinois, Maryland, New York, and Wisconsin, among others, even as they are continually pared back to be ever more restrictive in a bid to appease opponents.

Medical marijuana states that have less loosely written laws -- all via the initiative process, including California, Colorado, Michigan, and Montana -- proved to be highly contested terrain in 2010. The blossoming of hundreds of dispensaries in Colorado this year led to the passage of regulatory legislation this summer, while a similar, if more limited outbreak of envelope-pushing in Montana has legislators there vowing to rein in the industry when they reconvene next year. In Michigan, law enforcement in some locales has arrested people in apparent compliance with the state law. In all three states, battles have also broken out at the city or county level, especially over efforts to ban medical marijuana operations. These fights will continue.

California is a world of its own when it comes to medical marijuana. The most wide open of the medical marijuana states, which, thanks to the language of Proposition 215, allows for medical marijuana to be recommended for virtually anything, it is also the state where legal and political conflict over medical marijuana is most entrenched. Despite more than a decade of litigation, the legality of selling medical marijuana remains unclear, and depending on the attitude of local authorities, dispensaries can be -- and are -- subject to raids and prosecution. The medical marijuana community dodged a bullet in November when Kamala Harris defeated dispensary arch-foe Steve Cooley, the Republican Los Angeles County prosecutor. Meanwhile, in communities across the state, battles rage over banning dispensaries, or, in happier circumstances, over how to permit and tax them. And medical marijuana is increasingly recognized for the big business it is. A growing number of California towns and cities this year voted to tax medical marijuana, and Oakland gave the go-ahead for massive medical marijuana mega-farms, although it may now retreat in the face of rumblings from the Justice Department. None of this got resolved this year, and the fight over medical marijuana in the Golden State is unlikely to wind down any time soon.

The DEA Continues to Misbehave

And then there's the DEA. It was in October 2009 that the Justice Department released its famous memo telling the DEA to butt out if medical marijuana operations in states that had approved them where not violating state law. While DEA raids have certainly declined from their thuggish heyday in the Bush administration, they have not gone away. After a Colorado medical marijuana grower had the temerity to appear on a local TV news program showing off his garden, the DEA raided him in February. The DEA also hit Michigan medical marijuana operations at least twice, in July and again early this month. The DEA has also raided numerous California medical marijuana operations this year, including the first collective to apply for the Mendocino County sheriff's cultivation permit program and a number of beleaguered San Diego area dispensaries. In most cases, the DEA is relying on the cooperation of sympathetic local law enforcement and prosecutors. Making the DEA live up to the Holder memo is a battle that is yet to be won.

The Obama administration's nomination of acting DEA administrator Michele Leonhart is not a good omen. Despite a horrendous record at the DEA, including a stint as Special Agent in Charge in Los Angeles during the height of the Bush administration raids on medical marijuana facilities, and in St. Louis during the Andrew Chambers "supersnitch" perjury scandal, Leonhart's nomination has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and is likely to be approved by the Senate as a whole once she takes some actions to improve access to pain medications for seniors in nursing homes -- an issue on which Sen. Herb Kohl was said will cause him to place a hold on a floor vote until she and the agency address it.

Drug War Juggernaut Continues Rolling

While support for marijuana decriminalization and/or legalization continues to grow, and while a number of states have enacted sentencing reforms in response to fiscal pressures, the drug war juggernaut keeps rolling along, chewing up lives like so much chaff. US law enforcement made more than 1.6 million arrests on drug charges last year, more than half of them for marijuana offenses, marking the first year pot busts made up more than half of all drug arrests. The number is actually down slightly from the previous year, but only marginally so, as drug law enforcement keeps humming along. But in the current economic crunch, such a high level of enforcement and punishment may no longer be sustainable. A Pew report found that state prison populations had declined for the first time since the 1970s, if only by 0.4%, although the federal prison population, more than 60% of which consists of drug offenders, increased by 3.4%. Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported than US jail populations had decreased for the first time in decades, dropping by 2.3% over the previous year. The tiny turnarounds are a good thing, but there is a long, long way to go.

Rolling Back the Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity


For the first time in the modern drug war era, Congress this year rolled back a harsh drug sentencing law. The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses had been under the gun for more than decade as it became increasingly evident that the laws were having a racially disproportionate impact. Under the old law, five grams of crack would earn you a mandatory minimum five-year sentence, while it took a hundred times as much powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. Although a majority of crack users are white, blacks accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions. A bill to reduce, but not eliminate, the sentencing disparity passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in March and the Senate as a whole weeks later. The House Judiciary Committee had already passed a similar measure that would completely eliminate the disparity, but the House leadership chose to go along with the Senate, reducing the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, but not completely eliminating it when it voted to approve the bill in July. President Obama signed the bill into law days later. While passage of the bill is a milestone, it leaves work undone. The sentencing disparity, while reduced, still exists, and thousands of prisoners sentenced under the harsh old law remain in prison because the new law lacks retroactivity.

Demands for Drug Testing of Welfare Recipients, the Unemployed, and Even Politicians

The impulse to score cheap political points by unleashing moralistic wrath on the poor and the unfortunate remained alive in 2010. As in years past, efforts to demand drug testing of unemployment recipients or people receiving welfare benefits went nowhere, but not for lack of trying. In fact, the year was bookended by such efforts, starting with a Missouri bill that would have mandated drug testing for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients upon "reasonable cause." That bill passed a Senate committee and the House in February, but died in the Senate after a Democratic filibuster. Similarly, drug testing bills in Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia all died, as did a silly Louisiana bill that would have allowed Louisiana elected officials to submit to a voluntary drug test and post the results on the Internet. Later in the year, successful Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott called for mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients, a call he has vowed to carry out as governor.

Attack of (on) the Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids marketed as incense under names like Spice and K-2 first showed up on the national radar last year, and by early 2010 the prohibitionist impulse began rearing its ugly head in state legislatures across the land. Containing synthetic cannabinoids JWH-018 or JWH-073, synthesized by a university researcher in the 1990s, the stuff was available at head shops, smoke shops, and corner gas stations everywhere, as well as on the Internet. Although no overdose deaths linked to synthetic cannabinoids have been reported, there have been reports of emergency room visits and calls to poison centers by people under its influence. But it wasn't the alleged dangers as much as the fear that someone, somewhere could be getting high without getting into legal trouble that impelled a series of statewide and municipal bans. In March, Kansas became the first state to ban synthetic cannabinoids, followed by Alabama in April, Georgia in May and Missouri in July. Also banning the compounds this year were Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Tennessee. Similar legislation was also proposed in several more states, including Florida, Ilinois, and New York. Then, in November, the DEA announced an emergency nationwide ban to go into effect in 30 days, meaning you have until Christmas to use the compounds legally. After that, you're a federal criminal.

SWAT Raids and Drug War Killings

It's not just the massive extent of the drug war that generates criticism, but the law enforcement violence and overkill that too often accompanies it. This year, the now infamous SWAT team raid in Columbia, Missouri, in February that left a dog dead and a family traumatized in a raid over marijuana went got national attention when a video of the raid went viral on the Internet at mid-year. Another SWAT raid in Detroit in May generated outrage when it resulted in the death of 7-year-old girl shot by a raider, and that same month, a Georgia grandmother suffered a heart attack when her home was mistakenly hit by the local SWAT team and DEA agents. And then there was the case of Trevon Cole, a 21-year-old black man killed as he knelt in his own bathroom as the apartment he shared with his pregnant girlfriend was raided over small-time pot sales. The police shooter, of course, was found innocent of any wrongdoing in a coroner's inquest, and now Cole's family is suing. So is the family in the Columbia SWAT raid.

Sentencing Reforms Continue in the States

In a bid to reduce corrections spending, a number of states in the last decade have moved to implement sentencing reforms, and 2010 saw the trend continue. In May, Colorado passed reforms that will reduce some drug use and possession sentences, allow greater judicial flexibility in sentencing, and keep some technical parole violators from being sent back to prison. But the package also increases some drug sales and manufacturing sentences. In June, South Carolina passed reforms that will end mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. In August, Massachusetts passed reforms that will eliminate some mandatory minimums in a bill that was watered down from an earlier Senate version.  In all three cases, it was not bleeding hearts but bleeding wallets that was the impetus for reform.

A Congressional Drug Warrior Goes Down in Flames

It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. This year is also notable for the spectacular May end to the career of inveterate congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). The doughy cultural conservative crusader from the heartland resigned from Congress after admitting at a press conference to having an affair with a female staffer with whom he had once made abstinence videos. Souder is best known to drug reformers as the author of the "smoke a joint, lose your federal aid" provision of the Higher Education Act, and thus deserves credit for almost singlehandedly causing the formation of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. But his enthusiasm for the war on drugs also led him to the chairmanship of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources from 2001 to 2007, where he used his position to support harsh drug policies. He was, for instance, a staunch foe of medical marijuana and a loud voice against the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendments, which would, if passed, have stopped federal raids on medical marijuana patients and providers. To be fair, Souder did offer committee legislation in 2006 to restrict the reach of his student aid penalty, and he was also a key Republican supporter of the recent "Second Chance" prisoner reentry funding legislation. Still, reformers are happy that one of the staunchest and most active drug warriors is out of Congress now, struck down by his own hypocrisy.

Thursday Press Teleconference: Clinton Commutation Beneficiaries Call on President Obama to Expedite Clemency for Crack Cocaine Prisoners (Press Advisory)

For Immediate Release: December 15, 2010                      

Contact: Nkechi Taifa (202-641-6605) or Tony Newman (646-335-5384)

THURSDAY PRESS TELECONFERENCE: Clinton Commutation Beneficiaries Call on President Obama to Expedite Clemency for Crack Cocaine Prisoners

Recent federal legislation reducing the 100-to-1 cocaine sentencing disparity will not benefitthose in prison

Advocates will fast and pray for justice on December 22, 10-year anniversary of Clinton crack cocaine commutations

WASHINGTON, DC—Advocates for presidential clemency will join together for a press teleconference on Thursday, December 16 to urge President Obama to expedite clemency for people serving excessive terms under the now-reformed federal crack cocaine sentencing laws. Participants will be commemorating the 10-year anniversary of President Clinton’s commutation of Kemba Smith and Dorothy Gaines, two women sent to federal prison for 24 and 19 years, respectively, for playing peripheral roles in their boyfriends’ drug operations.  Joining the women on the press teleconference will be members of the Crack the Disparity Coalition, a broad coalition of civil rights, faith-based, drug policy, criminal justice reform advocacy groups, and formerly incarcerated people.

Recent changes under the Fair Sentencing Act, signed in August, reduce the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1 but do not provide relief to thousands of individuals who are already serving time for crack cocaine offenses. Prior to the law’s passage, an individual in possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine (roughly the amount of sugar in a couple of sugar packets) would be sentenced to a federal 5-year mandatory minimum sentence. It took 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same 5-year sentence.

The campaign has set up a site (http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/pres_obama-useyourpowertocorrectinjustice/) and a Facebook page, “Holiday Fast and Prayer for Justice,”(http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=173873379301719) where others can commit to fasting and prayer and sign a petition to President Obama on behalf of those behind bars under the old crack cocaine sentencing structure.

                        WHAT:           Press Teleconference to urge President Obama to expedite clemency

WHEN:           Thursday, December 16, 1 p.m. ET

CALL IN #:    1-800-311-9402   Passcode: Fairness

WHO:

Kemba Smith Pradia was sentenced as a first time non-violent drug offender to 24.5 years in federal prison even though the prosecutor handling her case said she never handled, used or sold any of the drugs involved. Currently, she is a national public speaker, advocate and founder of the Kemba Smith Foundation.

Dorothy Gaines is a single mother of three who was convicted of minor involvement in her boyfriends’ small-scale crack distribution and served 6 years of a 19 ½ year sentence before she was granted commutation. She currently works with at-risk youth in Mobile, AL.

Hilary O. Shelton is the Director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Policy. He played an integral role in the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and other policy measures affecting equality in our society. 

Margaret Love was the former U.S. Pardon attorney under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. She now represents people applying for executive clemency and advocates for sentencing and corrections reform.

Moderated by: Nkechi Taifa, the Senior Policy Analyst for the Open Society Foundations and Open Society Policy Center, focusing on issues of criminal justice and racial equality.  She also convenes the Crack the Disparity Working Group of the Justice Roundtable, and has worked for over 17 years to eliminate the crack/powder disparity.

New Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Crack Cocaine Now in Effect

New federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses went into effect Monday, a week after the US Sentencing Commission promulgated them. The commission acted on a temporary basis to implement the Fair Sentencing Act, which was passed into law last summer. It will vote in May to make the changes permanent.

The Fair Sentencing Act was passed in the face of growing uneasiness over racial disparities in federal drug sentences. From the 1980s until the act was passed, people caught with as little as five grams of crack cocaine faced mandatory minimum five-year prison sentences, while people caught with powder cocaine had to be caught with 500 grams before being hit with the mandatory minimum. More than 80% of federal crack prosecutions were aimed at blacks, even though more whites than blacks used crack.

Under the new law, it will take 28 grams of crack to trigger the mandatory minimum five-year sentence. Under the old law, 50 grams of crack earned a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence; under the new law, the threshold rises to 280 grams. That means the old 100:1 sentencing disparity has been reduced to 18:1.

That's not enough for groups like the November Coalition and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which have fought for years for federal drug sentencing reform. Still on the agenda for reformers is eliminating the remaining sentencing disparity and making the law retroactive to benefit people already serving draconian federal crack sentences.

It's not all good news. The new guidelines will also add months to some drug offender sentences. "Aggravating factors" such as intimidating girlfriends or elderly family members to sell drugs could earn drug gang leaders extra prison time. On the other hand, some low level offenders who were intimidated into participating in drug sales could see months shaved off their sentences.

Washington, DC
United States

Reducing Penalties for Crack and Peyote...But When Marijuana? (Opinion)

The Marijuana Policy Project's executive director, Rob Kampia, reflects on advocating changes in marijuana policy in light of reductions in penalties with regard to crack cocaine and peyote. He says it's all about framing the issue.
Publication/Source: 
The Huffington Post (CA)
URL: 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rob-kampia/reducing-penalties-for-cr_b_711065.html

Obama Takes a Crack at Drug Reform (Opinion)

Drug Policy Alliance ED, Ethan Nadelmann, opines on President Obama's drug policy reform moves since entering office.
Publication/Source: 
The Nation (NY)
URL: 
http://www.thenation.com/article/154164/obama-takes-crack-drug-reform

NAACP Praises Reduced Disparity in Cocaine Sentences ‎

The NAACP thanks Congress and the president for a new law that will reduce the gap between federal mandatory sentences for convictions for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.
Publication/Source: 
Politic365 (DC)
URL: 
http://politic365.com/2010/08/05/naacp-praises-reduced-disparity-in-cocaine-sentences/

If Lowering Penalties for Crack Isn't Controversial, What Is?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson at New America Media notes that last week's major reform of crack cocaine sentencing guidelines failed to meet with much opposition from the right. It's another powerful sign that drug war politics are changing before our eyes.

The silence of House Republicans on the congressional reform measure hardly means that mainstream GOP politicians are ready to become full-blown anti-drug war crusaders. However, the willingness of so many prominent conservatives to publicly voice their doubts about drug laws signals that drug reform is no longer a taboo subject within the GOP. The drug war, in effect, is now a legitimate subject of conservative debate.

The softening of GOP opposition is not entirely due to an epiphany about runaway costs and the threat to liberties. It’s also about politics. Polls show that a sizeable number of voters now think that the drug war has failed or is ineffective. A majority of voters in a growing number of states overwhelmingly back medical marijuana legalization, and even full legalization of marijuana for adults. Drug law reform, then, is clearly an issue that’s back on the nation’s political table. The GOP aims to have a seat at that table.

See, a lot of politicians just stare blankly back at you when you try to explain that the drug war horribly sucks and destroys everything. But when you pull out the poll numbers, suddenly there's a dialogue to be had and progress to be made. Funny how that works.

Of course, fixing federal drug laws is anything but easy. Last week's victory was literally decades in the making, but it nonetheless signals a dramatic departure from the long-standing principle that drug policy reform in Congress is a political impossibility. If we can reform crack laws without igniting any vicious partisan mudslinging, then it should be possible to move forward towards addressing countless other costly and counterproductive drug policies that only Congress can correct.

Obama Signs Crack Cocaine Sentencing Reform Bill

President Obama Tuesday signed into law a bill, S. 1789, which significantly reduces, but does not eliminate, the infamous disparity in sentencing of federal crack and powder cocaine offenders. The signing was open to news photographers, but not other media. Obama took no questions and made no remarks.

Under quarter-century old federal laws drafted in the midst of the crack hysteria of the mid-1980s, people convicted of possessing as little as five grams of crack cocaine faced a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, while it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the same penalties. The law subjected tens of thousands of African-Americans to long prison sentences for crack offenses, while whites busted for crack mainly got sent to state court for comparatively lenient sentences.

Under the new law, that 100:1 disparity is reduced to 18:1. That means instead of five grams of crack garnering the same sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine, it will now take 28 grams of crack to earn the five-year mandatory minimum. That goes up to 10 years if the amount in question is more than 280 grams of crack.

While the new law removes the mandatory minimum sentence for simply possessing five grams of crack and while it will likely reduce sentences by about two years for federal crack offenders, it is not retroactive. That means thousands of people doing harsh sentences under the old law will continue to serve them, at least for now. However, the US Sentencing Commission could take up the retroactivity question for those people, now that Congress has change the threshold for mandatory minimums.

Drug War Chronicle did a feature article on the bill last week. For more detail and analysis, read it here.

Washington, DC
United States

Obama signs bill to narrow sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine convictions

Drug prohibition allows for massive disparity in sentencing, and this disparity is one of the many reasons millions of Americans see it as the new Jim Crow. President Barack Obama signed into law a bill to reduce the disparity between federal mandatory sentences for convictions for crack cocaine and the powder form of the illegal drug. The quarter-century-old law that Congress changed with the bill Obama signed subjected tens of thousands of black cocaine users to long prison terms while specifying far more lenient sentences to those, mainly whites, caught with powder cocaine.
Publication/Source: 
The Canadian Press (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5jQH8VsevgcP6y2Xr7kSs8_Zg7F2g

Congress Acts to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity (FEATURE)

The US House of Representatives Wednesday approved a bill, SB 1789, that addresses one of the most glaring injustices of the American drug war: the 100:1 disparity in sentencing between federal crack cocaine and federal powder cocaine offenders. The bill does not eliminate the disparity, but dramatically reduces it.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/crack-the-disparity-briefing-spring09.jpg
Hill briefing by Crack the Disparity, spring 2009
A companion measure passed the Senate in March. The bill now goes to the White House for President Obama's signature, which is expected shortly. The White House supported the bill.

Under federal drug laws enacted during the height of the crack hysteria of the mid-1980s, a person caught with five grams of crack cocaine faced the same mandatory minimum five-year sentence as someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine. And though blacks constitute only about 30% of all crack users, they accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions.

The bill approved by Congress reduces that 100:1 ratio to 18:1. It also removes the mandatory minimum sentence for possession of five grams or less of crack, marking the first time Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum since Richard Nixon was president, although not the first time a law involving mandatory minimums has been scaled back. To the dismay of advocates, the bill is not retroactive.

Under the bill, it will take 28 grams of crack to garner a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence and 280 grams to trigger a 10-year prison sentence. It will still take 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger the five-year mandatory minimum. Estimates are that, once enacted, the law could affect about 3,000 cases a year, reducing sentences by an average of two years. The shorter sentences should save about $42 million in prison costs over five years.

Criminal Justice Policy Foundation head Eric Sterling has been working to reform the law for nearly two decades -- since just a few years after he helped write it as House Judiciary Committee counsel at the time. The change didn't come nearly fast enough, he said. "I'm very personally relieved," Sterling said. "My role in these tragic injustices has pained me for decades. You realize that probably hundreds of thousands of men and women went to prison for unjustly long sentences that I helped write. It's not something I've ever forgotten."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/scales.jpg
scales of justice tilt slightly closer to sanity
He didn't think it was going to happen. "I have become so cynical," he said. "I really doubted the leadership was going to bring it to the floor, and I doubted that the Republicans were going to support it. Even though it had passed the Senate, I didn't think the House Republicans were going to go along. But I was pleasantly surprised that people like Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Dan Lundgren (R-CA) spoke in favor of it, and that the House majority leader went to the floor to speak in favor of it. My cynicism was completely unwarranted here, so I'm very relieved and satisfied."

"Members of both parties deserve enormous credit for moving beyond the politics of fear and simply doing the right thing," said Julie Stewart, founder and president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "For those of us who have been pushing for reform for nearly 20 years, today's vote is phenomenal. To see members of Congress come together on such a historically partisan issue like this during an election year is heartening. The 100:1 disparity was an ugly stain on the criminal justice system," Stewart continued. "Nobody will mourn its passing -- least of all, the thousands of individuals and families FAMM has worked with over the past 20 years that have been directly impacted. I am hopeful that the forces of reason and compassion that carried the day today will prevail again soon to apply the new law retroactively to help those already in prison for crack cocaine offenses," Stewart concluded.

"This is a historic day, with House Republicans and Democrats in agreement that US drug laws are too harsh and must be reformed," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The tide is clearly turning against the failed war on drugs. I'm overjoyed that thousands of people, mostly African American, will no longer be unjustly subjected to the harsh sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s," Tyler said. "The compromise is not perfect and more needs to be done, but this is a huge step forward in reforming our country's overly harsh and wasteful drug laws."

"Well, I guess there's 80% less racism, but there's still a big problem, though," said Nora Callahan, director of the November Coalition, a drug reform group that concentrates on federal drug war prisoners. "This is a fix on the back end, but as the US Sentencing Commission noted, sentencing really begins when the police start investigating. That whole drug war system of cops and snitches and prosecutors is still in place."

"Substantively, this is not a major policy change," agreed Sterling, "But symbolically, it's very important. I wouldn't have thought this would have made it to the House floor, and I wouldn't have thought this would pass by two-thirds on a recorded vote."

"This is progress, but it's not retroactive, so all the people who worked so hard to pass this bill don't get any reward," said Callahan. "When you leave out the principle of extending justice to all, it's really tough. How do you tell people sorry, we left you out of it?"

Making the law retroactive will be the next battle, but it won't be the only one. "In concrete terms, the next step will be to try to get retroactivity," said Sterling. "The other side of it is to push the president to start commuting sentences."

Washington, DC
United States

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