Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

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Breaking: House Subcommittee Votes to Reduce Crack Cocaine Penalties to Powder Cocaine Level

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), H.R. 3245
lead sponsor and long-time champion
for criminal justice reformThe House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security this afternoon unanimously approved H.R. 3245, the "Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009." According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums:
The bill would remove references to "cocaine base" from the US Code, effectively treating all cocaine, including crack, the same for sentencing purposes. Original cosponsors of the bill include all Democratic members of the subcommittee and the sponsors of all other Democratic bills that address the cocaine sentencing disparity.
Click here for the full press release. Exciting times -- as I noted a few minutes ago when writing about another good vote that took place in Congress yesterday, eliminating the loss of financial aid penalty that exists for students convicted of drug possession. That one was part of a larger, high-priority bill that that committee is now sending to the full House of Representatives. Whether this standalone bill, coming out of a subcommittee, will get to that level is less certain. However, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, John Conyers (D-MI), is an ardent supporter, and the bill passed the subcommittee unanimously, meaning the Republicans on the subcommittee must have voted for it too. (The roll call isn't online yet.) So it is very encouraging nonetheless.
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Sentencing: Attorney General Calls for Elimination of Crack-Powder Cocaine Disparity

US Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that the gap in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses must go. Holder's remarks came as he addressed a legal discussion sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/ericholder.jpg
Eric Holder
Under federal sentencing laws in place since the mid-1980s, five grams of crack cocaine earns a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, but it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same sentence. This 100-to-1 disparity has hit black defendants the hardest. According to US government figures, 82% of federal crack offenders are black and only 9% white.

Pressure has been building for the past decade to reform those laws and reduce or eliminate that disparity. The notion has broad support even in Congress, but faces a perilous path among competing bills and competing notions about how the disparity should be addressed -- eliminate it completely, lower the ratio, or even increase powder penalties -- and how broadly the entire federal sentencing structure needs to be reformed.

Holder made it clear where the administration stands. "One thing is very clear: We must review our federal cocaine sentencing policy. This administration firmly believes that the disparity in crack and powdered cocaine sentences is unwarranted," Holder said. "It must be eliminated."

That's a stark contrast with the Bush administration, which fought hard to maintain the current cocaine sentencing structure despite opposition from the US Sentencing Commission, drug and criminal justice system reform advocates, an increasing number of prosecutors and judges, and an increasing number of legislators.

Video: Crack Sentencing Reform Petition Delivered to Congress -- Former Prisoners, Family Members and Advocates Speak Out

Last month the "Crack the Disparity" Coalition delivered petitions signed by tens of thousands of people, calling for an end to the draconian US crack sentencing laws, to the offices of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) and Pat Leahy (D-VT), respective chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. This short video on ColorOfChange.org shows one of the deliveries, and features comments from Karen Garrison, whose two sons were unjustly caught up in these laws; and from Nkechi Taifa, who heads up justice reform efforts at the Open Society Policy Center. The ColorOfChange.org page devoted to this petition also features audio from the press conference, including former Major League baseball star Willie Mays Aikens, who served 14 years in federal prison after an untreated cocaine addiction drew him into the federal system with crack charges.

Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy

Congressional Black Caucus Justice and Civil Rights Taskforce and Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard Law School presents Rethinking Federal Sentencing Policy: 25th Anniversary of the Sentencing Reform Act. For more information, contact: Bernard Moore, PhD, Senior Policy Fellow, Office of Congressman Danny K. Davis at 202-360-7551 or Bernard.moore@mail.house.gov. Schedule: Welcome and Opening remarks by Rep. Danny Davis (5 minutes) Rep. Charles Rangel (5 minutes) Welcome and Introduction of A.G. by CBC Justice & Civil Rights Task Force, Rep. John Conyers (5-10 minutes) Remarks by Eric Holder, Attorney General (15 minutes), U.S. Department of Justice Introduction of Justice O’Connor by Sen. Patrick Leahy, Charles Hamilton Houston, Institute for Race & Justice (5 minutes) Remarks by Hon. Sandra Day O’Connor (15 minutes), Supreme Court of the United States Mandatory Minimums Panel One: Rep Maxine Waters (CA) History of Mandatory Minimums Hon. Terry Hatter, Judge, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California Hon. J. Spencer Letts, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California Eric Sterling, President, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation Charles E. Black, formerly Incarcerated Panel Two: Rep. Bobby Scott (VA) the need for repeal and how to repeal, including legislative update Hon. Ann Williams, Circuit Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit A.J. Kramer, Federal Defender, Federal Public Defender of the District of Columbia Julie Stewart, President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums Disparity between Crack and Powder Cocaine Panel Three: Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX) Hon. Reggie B. Walton, Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Hon. William Sessions, Vice Chairman, U.S. Sentencing Commission Brace Nicholson, Legislative Counsel, American Bar Association David Kirby, Former United States Attorney for the District of Vermont Good Time Panel Four: Rep. Danny K. Davis (IL) Hon. Consuelo B. Marshall, Senior Judge, U.S. District Court for Central District of California Nancy Gertner, Judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts Marc Mauer, Executive Director, Sentencing Project Harley G. Lappin, Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons (Discuss overcrowding)
Date: 
Wed, 06/24/2009 - 4:30pm - 7:30pm
Location: 
Orientation Theater-South
Washington, DC
United States

Sentencing: Obama Administration Tells Congress to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

In a break with the Bush administration, Justice Department officials called Wednesday for the first time for Congress to pass legislation that would undo the vast disparities in sentences for those convicted of crack and powder cocaine possession offenses. For years, drug reformers, civil rights groups, and even the US Sentencing Commission have called for the disparities to be undone, saying they have had a racially disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities.

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Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) opens the hearing
Under federal sentencing laws adopted in the midst of the crack hysteria of the 1980s, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to generate a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to generate the same sentence. Historically, blacks have accounted for more than 80% of all federal crack convictions, with whites accounting for less than 10%.

Competing bills have been introduced to eliminate or reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, but in previous years they have not gotten far. With the administration now behind eliminating the disparity, this year could be different.

Justice Department Criminal Division Chief Lanny Breuer told a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee Wednesday that the administration supported bills that would equalize punishments for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The disparity should be "completely eliminated," he said.

"Now is the time for us to reexamine federal cocaine sentencing policy, from the perspective of both fundamental fairness and safety," Breuer told the Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs. He added that a Justice Department panel is reviewing a broad range of criminal justice topics, including sentencing reforms.

It's about time, said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), the Senate majority whip, citing the racially disproportionate crack conviction figures. "These racial disparities profoundly undermine trust in our criminal justice system and have a deeply corrosive effect on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities," Durbin said.

US District Judge Reggie Walton, representing the Judicial Conference, also addressed the committee. The crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is "one of the most important issues confronting the criminal justice system today," he said. "No one can appreciate the agony of having to enforce a law that one believes to be fundamentally unfair to individuals who look like me," said the judge, who is black.

Sentencing reform advocacy groups were also on hand for the hearing. Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) told the subcommittee the sentencing disparity has a discriminatory impact on blacks, including people like FAMM client Eugenia Jennings, now serving a 20-year prison sentence for twice trading small amounts of crack for designer clothes.

"This hearing gives new hope to thousands who have loved ones serving harsh sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses," Price said.

Even former DEA head and enthusiastic drug warrior Asa Hutchinson had little good to say about the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. "When significant numbers of African Americans on the street question the fairness of our criminal justice system, then it becomes more difficult for the officer on the street to do his or her duty under the law," Hutchinson said.

A number of bills have been filed in both the House and the Senate to address the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Now, the fight will be to ensure that eliminating the disparity means reducing crack sentences, not increasing powder ones.

Click here to view archived video of the hearing.

Obama Supports Ending the Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

Good news from Washington, D.C.:

Justice Department officials this morning endorsed for the first time proposed legislation that would eliminate vast sentencing disparities for possession of powdered versus rock cocaine, an inequality that civil rights groups say has disproportionately affected poor and minority defendants.

Newly appointed Criminal Division chief Lanny A. Breuer told a Senate Judiciary Committee panel this morning that the Obama administration would support bills to equalize punishment for offenders accused of possessing the drug in either form, fulfilling one of the president's campaign pledges.

Breuer explicitly called on Congress to act this term to "completely eliminate" the sentencing disparity. [Washington Post]

The cocaine sentencing disparity has been a festering indefensible abomination for decades, and now that we're finally on track to fix this mess once and for all, I don't hear anyone complaining. It's great that the new administration is following through on their promises to support sentencing reform, but it's also just appalling to think that it's taken this long to get any momentum going towards fixing this notorious injustice. There was never anything to be afraid of.

Fixing dumb laws is the duty of the Congress and they'd be hard pressed to find a dumber one than this. Don't make this more complicated than it has to be. Just fix it already.

TODAY is National Call-In Day: Call Your Representatives NOW

TAKE ACTION

Capital

 

     Today, be one of thousands of people across the country to phone your members of Congress to call for an end to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Your calls will make an important difference.
 
     This National Call-In Day is part of Crack the Disparity National Month of Advocacy, a month-long coordinated push to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.
 
     The current law:

  • overstates the relative danger of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine;
  • contributes to the growth of our prison population, increasing the financial burden on taxpayers;
  • disproportionately affects African Americans; and
  • uses limited federal resources on low-level street dealers rather than on the major drug traffickers.

      Twenty-three years of a failed policy is long enough!  It's time to end this unjust and disproportionate sentencing policy. To participate call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard right now at 202.224.3121, and ask to speak to your representatives in the Senate and House. Urge them to support and co-sponsor H.R. 265, the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act in the House and legislation in the Senate that eliminates the 100 to 1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

    You should place three calls because you have one representative and two senators.
 
     Use this link to help you with your calls to Congress.

Click here for talking points and script

Take Action Alert: National Call-In Day Thursday, April 23

Dear Friends, On Thursday, April 23, thousands of people across the country will phone their members of Congress to call for an end to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. We hope that you will mark your calendar and join us. Your calls will make an important difference. The National Call-In Day is part of Crack the Disparity National Month of Advocacy, a month-long coordinated push to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The current law: • overstates the relative danger of crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine; • contributes to the growth of our prison population, increasing the financial burden on taxpayers; • disproportionately affects African Americans; and • uses limited federal resources on low-level street dealers rather than on the major drug traffickers. Twenty-three years of a failed policy is long enough! It's time to end this unjust and disproportionate sentencing policy. To participate, mark your calendar for April 23, call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202.224.3121, and ask to speak to your representatives in the Senate and House. Urge them to support and co-sponsor H.R. 265, the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act in the House and legislation in the Senate that eliminates the 100 to 1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine. You should place three calls because you have one representative and two senators. Use this link (talking points and script) to help you with your calls to Congress: http://sentencingproject.org/AdvocacyMaterialDetails.aspx?AdvocacyMateri... - The Sentencing Project

Save the date! National FAMM's Call-In to Congress, April 23

Families Against Mandatory Minimums logo

 

Dear Friends --

Call-In Day button

On Thursday, April 23, thousands of people across the country will phone their members of Congress to call for an end to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. We hope that you will mark your calendar and join us.  Your calls will make an important difference.

The National Call-In Day is part of "Crack the Disparity" National Month of Advocacy, a month-long coordinated push to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

The current law:
*   overstates the relative danger of crack cocaine to powder cocaine;

*   contributes to the growth of our prison population, increasing the financial burden on taxpayers;

*   disproportionately affects African Americans; and

*   uses limited federal resources on low-level street dealers rather than on the major drug traffickers.

Twenty-three years of a failed policy is long enough!  It's time to end this unjust and disproportionate sentencing policy.  To participate, mark your calendar for April 23. FAMM will send out contact information for your Congressional representative and two senators as well as talking points the day before the call-in.

Thank you --

Jennifer

Jennifer Seltzer Stitt

Federal Legislative Affairs Director
Sentences that Fit. Justice that Works.

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Families Against Mandatory Minimums: National Call-In Day

Thousands of people across the country will phone their members of Congress to call for an end to the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. We hope that you will mark your calendar and join us. Your calls will make an important difference. The National Call-In Day is part of "Crack the Disparity" National Month of Advocacy, a month-long coordinated push to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The current law: * overstates the relative danger of crack cocaine to powder cocaine; * contributes to the growth of our prison population, increasing the financial burden on taxpayers; * disproportionately affects African Americans; and * uses limited federal resources on low-level street dealers rather than on the major drug traffickers. Twenty-three years of a failed policy is long enough! It's time to end this unjust and disproportionate sentencing policy. To participate, mark your calendar for April 23. FAMM will send out contact information for your Congressional representative and two senators as well as talking points the day before the call-in.
Date: 
Thu, 04/23/2009 - 12:01am - 11:59pm

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