Feature: Bipartisan Group of US Senators Introduce Bill to Reduce Cocaine Sentencing Disparities

Four US senators -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- introduced legislation Tuesday that would reduce the disparity in sentencing for those caught with powder cocaine and those caught with crack. Currently, it takes 100 times as much powder cocaine to earn the same sentence as a crack offender. Under the bill, the Drug Sentencing Reform Act of 2006 (S. 3725), that disparity would be reduced to 20-to-1.

The harsh laws against crack were passed in a rush in the summer of 1986, as part of the enactment of federal mandatory minimum sentences, after the death of basketball player Len Bias galvanized then House Speaker Tip O'Neill to act. Ironically, Bias died after using powder cocaine.

Federal prisons are filled with people, the vast majority of them black, doing lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for federal crack convictions. In 2000, for example, 84% of those sentenced under federal crack laws were black, 9% Hispanic, and 5% white. With powder cocaine, 30% of offenders were black, 50% Hispanic, and 15% white. Again ironically, powder cocaine appears to currently be much more popular with young people than crack.

While it takes 500 grams -- more than a pound -- of powder cocaine to merit the five-year mandatory minimum, it takes only five grams of crack to do so. Under the bill, the senators would slightly lower the quantity for powder cocaine and increase the quantity for crack cocaine. The senators propose 400 grams of powder to trigger the mandatory minimum and 20 grams of crack.

The four senators introducing the bill are Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Mark Pryor (D-AR), John Cornyn (R-TX) and Ken Salazar (D-CO). All are former state attorneys general, and they cited that experience in arguing for the reform. Sen. Cornyn told reporters at a press conference Tuesday that his experience as Texas attorney general led him to believe "laws should be firm but fair. We not only need just laws, but they need the appearance and reality of fairness."

“This bill would bring measured and balanced improvements in the current sentencing system to ensure a more just outcome -- tougher sentences on the worst and most violent drug offenders and less severe sentences on lower-level, nonviolent offenders," said Sen. Sessions in a statement. "The 100-to-1 disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine is not justifiable. Our experience with the guidelines has convinced me that these changes will make the criminal justice system more effective and fair. It’s time to act.”

“Cocaine poses a significant threat because it is readily available, highly addictive and directly associated with violent crime in both rural and urban communities," said Sen. Pryor. "We need to send a strong message to those who buy and sell this drug, and that includes fixing the disparities that exist in our sentencing guidelines and keeping the most dangerous offenders off the streets."

The bill would also decrease penalties for people peripherally involved in federal drug offenses and increase penalties for those dealers who engaged in violence or used children as part of their drug operations.

“The 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine can no longer be justified," said Sen. Salazar. "This bill would begin the process of ensuring that the punishment for crack and cocaine is severe, but just. As a former attorney general, I am sensitive to the balance that must be struck to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. The Drug Sentencing Reform Act is an important step toward achieving this balance and I am hopeful the rest of the Senate will support this common-sense bill.”

For Sen. Cornyn, the concern was that the laws are not keeping up with current trends in drug use. “Though we have made great strides in the war on drugs in recent years, Congress must remain vigilant in addressing this problem where and when it is required," he said. "Today, more high school students use powder than crack. In 2005, the rate of powder cocaine use among 12th Graders was almost three times as high as the rate of crack cocaine use. It is important that our drug laws reflect those troubling statistics which is what this legislation seeks to do.”

Sentencing reform advocates are taking a measured view toward the legislation. For example, a bulletin from the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) called the bill "half right."

What the senators are proposing is only a tiny first step toward justice, said Nora Callahan, executive director of The November Coalition, a drug reform group that concentrates on winning freedom for drug war prisoners. "If a fight over the bill is brewing, I'd like to duke it out and get retroactivity provisions," she told DRCNet. "That would be a first. We need a breakthrough in this regard, when laws are changed, people already sentenced see no relief. That's wrong."

There should be no difference in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, said Callahan. "No disparity would be justice, but sadly, is not the 'American Way.' We restore justice incrementally in this country. People that struggle for notions of fairness in law and sentencing have to make tactical decisions. We are waiting for input from those imprisoned on these laws, and they'll be asking what's in the bill for them. Will they give sentencing relief to those sentenced at the 100-to-1 ratio?"

Drug and sentencing reformers and civil rights organizations have long called for greater equity in cocaine sentencing, but previous attempts to redress the disparities have gone nowhere. With bipartisan support from some "tough on crime" senators this time around, pressure could be starting to mount that would result in actual positive changes.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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