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Feature: Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity Bill Passes Key House Subcommittee, Heads for Floor Vote

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #596)
Politics & Advocacy

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security Wednesday approved a bill designed to end the disparity in sentencing for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses. The bill, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009 (H.R. 3245), passed by a vote of 16-9 and now heads for a House floor vote.

the late Lillie Blevins, served life sentence for a crack cocaine ''conspiracy'' after being convicted on the word of a snitch who received probation in return (courtesy
Under laws passed in the midst of the crack cocaine panic of the 1980s, it takes 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack to trigger mandatory minimum sentences. For example, five grams of crack earns a five-year mandatory minimum, but it takes 500 grams of powder to garner the same sentence.

A majority of crack users are white, but more than 80% of federal crack prosecutions have been aimed at blacks. When Hispanics are added in, nearly 96% of all federal crack prosecutions have been aimed at non-whites.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) addresses the disparity by removing all references to crack cocaine in federal sentencing laws and treating the two forms of the drug equally. Under the bill, it would take 500 grams of either crack or powder cocaine to trigger the mandatory minimum sentence. The bill would also eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for possession of any amount of crack.

"We have taken a big step today toward ending the disparity that exists between crack and powder cocaine sentencing," said Judiciary committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who cosponsored the bill. "African Americans serve almost as much time in federal prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months), largely due to sentencing laws such as the 100-to-1 crack-powder cocaine disparity. Since 1980, the number of offenders in federal prisons for drug offenses has skyrocketed from less than 5,000 to almost 100,000 in 2009. Currently, drug offenders represent 52% of all federal prison inmates."

The crack/powder sentencing disparity has been the most glaring example of racially imbalanced drug enforcement in recent years and has been under attack not only by sentencing reform advocates, civil libertarians, and civil rights groups, but also by the US Sentencing Commission, which has for more than a decade called for its elimination. But any moves to address it languished during the Bush administration.

The atmosphere has changed with Democratic control of the White House and the Congress. Both President Obama and Attorney General Holder support ending the disparity, so do congressional Democrats, and even some congressional Republicans.

Remaining Republican hard-line drug warriors in the subcommittee attempted to subvert the spirit of the bill, resorting to time-honored anti-drug political tactics, but failed. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the ranking Republican on the committee, was concerned about sending messages. "The bill sends the wrong message to drug dealers and those who traffic in ravaging human lives. It sends the message that Congress does not take drug crimes seriously," he complained.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced an amendment to address the disparity by making the current draconian penalties for crack apply to powder cocaine as well. He said he supported reducing the sentencing disparity, but "let's do it on the side of making sure our streets are safer, not less safe."

But committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) ruled the amendment out of order. It was then tabled on a 14-13 vote.

Rep. Melvin Watt (D-NC) captured the majority sentiment for ending the crack/powder sentencing disparity. "It did not work," he said. "We were wrong."

The vote was welcomed by sentencing reform advocates. "Today's vote is an historic first step in ending a 20-year injustice," said Michael Macleod-Ball, interim director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "Lawmakers must act now to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing by treating both forms of the same drug equally under federal law. Congress alone has the authority to put a stop to the crack-powder disparity and long mandatory minimum sentences."

"Justice won today," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "Today's vote represents another step to restoring basic fairness to our sentencing laws and to fulfilling the Constitution's promise of equal justice under the law. We urge the full House to act quickly on this measure."

"It makes no more sense to punish crack cocaine offenders more harshly than powder cocaine offenders than it does to punish wine drinkers more harshly than beer drinkers. Crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "When all is said and done people will look back at this as a watershed moment -- the day that Congress began rolling back some of the drug war's worst excesses."

The bill still has to pass the House. On the Senate side, Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) is preparing to introduce his own measure to eliminate the sentencing disparity. It is expected to win bipartisan support from his fellow Judiciary Committee members.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

Finally, the sentencing guidelines have reflected the 1:1 ratio through the DOJ statements and Kimbrough. Hopefully the mandatory minimums will reflect such as well!

Fri, 07/31/2009 - 5:39pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

How can any of these drug laws be fair, ridiculous, unbeliveable, and completely set too imprison all minorities from the very start the progress is slow and thank God no one I know is in prison because of these laws. I am sorry for all the millions of people around the world that have felt the hatred that is still generated by this horrable and senseless WAR on people that for one reason or another have lost their freedom if not lives, livelyhood , families, pets, time, and on and on and on .We must end this insanity !!!!

Sun, 08/02/2009 - 4:19am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I honestly think that these penalties are harsh in many ways. My husband is in the federal system and it is so said when you get mandatory time for conspiracy. The people that sit here and make these laws need it to hit home...but when it comes to their can be easily handled behind closed doors. I am not justifying that drug dealers shouldn't be punish but not like they have in the past. Some can't even get a bond, but there are people that do worse than drugs and get bonds..The people that need harsher sentencing are the people who sexual abuse children but they get pats on the back...(probation) or people who still millions of dollars from the government get less time. You have men that are away from their families...and the people who make these laws don't have to look in the eyes of the children and try to explain to them when daddy is coming home...then depend on welfare to support the family. I hope that the 1:1 ratio help everybody that is in the federal system because serving 10 years for a drug offense is beyond ridiculous. I hope Congress, House or whomever sit back and have a heart for some of these people in these federal facilities...because me personally..I am trying so hard to hold it together for the four children that is left behind since my husband has been locked up. Traveling to go visit (gas money and hotels) splitting the kids up for visitation, putting money on the books, high phone bills, postal service bill, discriminating your image in the town's newspaper, seizing vehicles and etc. I have been mentally drained, we all are suffering from this...and thinking that they got a deal with the lawyer but really didn't...I don't have a problem with the laws in punishing them but my God why take a person through all of this...why take a man from his family for all these years? What do Congress, House expect me to do? What?

Thu, 11/05/2009 - 10:31pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I hope this is over with and I pray that they let our husband and wife go.And who ever you are you speaking the truth because I'm going thru the same thing.I will be praying for these familys and more.May God bless you all

Sun, 12/06/2009 - 2:38am Permalink
Anita Anstead (not verified)

i hope that this law passes because people are getting alot of time and they don't deserve it i know that drugs is a bad thing cause it can kill alot of people but noone need to be punish at a lot of time like 10 or 20 years so i have been talking to alot of people about this help our community please.

Sat, 01/02/2010 - 7:16pm Permalink
Metalfreiza (not verified)

This argument to equalize the punishment is totally ridiculous, and I’m already tired of reading about it-that law need not be changed! The fact that crack is cheap and therefore more available to the poor has nothing to do with it because crack is highly addictive to the rich and the poor alike, so poor people just need to find a new way to make $ without getting everyone hooked on super-addictive drugs for god’s sake! I know which one is more addictive because I’ve tried them, and I hate coke! When you hit crack you go str8 to that heavenly whole body orgasm in like ten seconds and IMMEDIATELY want more and badly as it takes you to the same place a lot faster than coke, so of course it is more addictive! I’m enraged by people who argue that just because black people aren’t as likely to actually use crack and are more likely to get busted selling it (or having it for an unknown reason-their case somehow merely “involves” crack-stupid defense), they don’t deserve any harsh punishments. They won’t taste their own medicine because they’d rather use addicts, who are willing to pay their outrageous prices, for $ and power! Why not contrast this idea with the one that Mexico had about why they should legalize small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, and heroine for personal use. They did that because they didn’t want to continue to fill their jails with “people who have these addictions”. In the same way, people who are busted with possessing coke or small amounts of crack for personal use in the USA may be offered rehab as part of a deferral program to help with their addiction because they are prone to use (5 grams is NOT a small amount of crack for personal use). But then we have these non-using, black, crack dealers! They don’t get involved with crack because they have a substance abuse problem at all as half of them have never used it in their whole life; they only get involved with crack because they don’t wanna work, and they wanna make free $ on the black market even though they know that it could be at the expense of their own freedom! They actually DECIDE to do that in spite of the well-known consequences. They’re too smart to be foolish enough to use the addictive substance, but the truth is they’re not smart enough to keep from getting set up and sent to prison for life for selling it to criminal informants like myself. They just need to go to jail for trying to mess everyone up for free $! And I think that the fact that they don’t use makes their involvement with the substance less understandable and not more so! If the punishment for crack is so bad, why don’t they just stop selling crack? Most white people find other, more productive, ways to make a living as they are less likely get caught in that net of justice because crack is an extremely addictive drug that is dangerous to get busted screwing around with and for good reason! They’re always getting busted with it, yet statistics show they don’t use it as much. So it’s laughable to suggest that they should be offered any chance of drug treatment instead of prison. That will not fix them-they are sick, lazy people looking for any easy way OUT and using a hard substance that often ends up being an easy way IN to some hard time! It’s not racial disparity; it’s a disparity for fools!

Sun, 01/17/2010 - 2:33pm Permalink

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