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Sentencing: Sen. Durbin Introduces Bill to Eliminate Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) Thursday introduced the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009, which would eliminate the 100:1 sentencing disparity in federal crack and powder cocaine cases. Under current laws, in place since the crack hysteria of the mid-1980s, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to earn the same sentence.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Fair Sentencing Act would eliminate that disparity. Companion legislation has already passed the House Judiciary Committee. Ending the disparity is also supported by President Obama.

Pressure to remedy the injustice of the sentencing disparity has been building for years. The US Sentencing Commission has reduced sentences for crack offenses and has argued for years that the disparity needs to be eliminated. It has been joined by a growing coalition of faith-based, drug reform, criminal justice, and other interest groups. Now, finally, something is moving in Congress.

"Drug use is a serious problem in America and we need tough legislation to combat it," Durbin said in a statement Thursday taking a very mainstream line. "But in addition to being tough, our drug laws must be smart and fair. Our current cocaine laws are not," the statement continued. "The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine has contributed to the imprisonment of African Americans at six times the rate of whites and to the United States' position as the world's leader in incarcerations. Congress has talked about addressing this injustice for long enough; it's time for us to act."

"Sen. Durbin's bill will not only restore judicial discretion, which has been undermined by the statutory mandatory minimum sentences that Congress enacted 23 years ago, but will directly address racial disparities in our criminal justice system and ensure that there is, in fact, 'justice for all'," said Jasmine L. Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The House and Senate should move quickly on this issue, 23 years is too long to wait for justice to be served."

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NAACP's Hilary Shelton addresses ''Crack the Disparity'' coalition Congressional Briefing Tuesday
The act is cosponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and six other Judiciary Committee members: Sens. Arlen Specter (D-PA), Russell Feingold (D-VT), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Edward Kaufman (D-DE), and Al Franken (D-NM). Also cosponsoring the bill are Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Chris Dodd (D-CT). Some Republican senators have expressed support for reforming the sentencing disparity, but none have yet signed on as cosponsors.

"Today, the criminal justice system has unfair and biased cocaine penalties that undermine the Constitution's promise of equal treatment for all Americans," Leahy said. "To have faith in our system Americans must have confidence that the laws of this country, including our drug laws, are fair and administered fairly. I believe the Fair Sentencing Act will move us one step closer to reaching that goal. I commend Senator Durbin for his leadership in fixing this decades-old injustice. We should do what we can to restore public confidence in our criminal justice system. Correcting biases in our criminal sentencing laws is a step in that direction."

Click here for C-Span footage of a Tuesday Congressional briefing held by the Crack the Disparity coalition.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Add measure to address tobackgo vs. cannabis

This should be a reminder that there is another "disparity" between the severity of laws and enforcement against (a) selling or providing unlicensed cannabis to anyone, particularly minors and (b) selling or providing tobackgo $igarettes to minors. Where are the 800,000 arrests/year for pushing addictive nicotine genocide? Yet somehow year after year over 800,000 Americans get hooked, half of them under-age to legally buy the product (and the earlier hooked, the more likely to die).

Fair Sentencing Act of 2009

For years I've watched the criminal justice system take away African American men for drug charges. They are given life sentences with no hope or possibility for parole. With this Act being passed, it will mean hope for not only them, but there families also. Give them a number at least to look forward to. I can understand if a person commited a murder, then that's where I see that life in prison is the ultimate, but for a drug charge I believe its insane. Most of the men charged are inner city youth or young men who just don't know any other way and this is all they are exposed to. Instead of throwing a persons life away give them hope. Everyone complains about drug dealers and what they're doing but who wants to take a chance and show them that there's a better way of life than what they are doing when they have never been exposed to it? Wanting a better life is one thing but exposing someone to it and showing them there is, that's a difference. For the sake of mothers out there who have sons in prison and are struggling on their own just to make it, I hope that indeed this act is passed for their sakes. There needs to be a better way than prison for some of these men. Someone needs to create a different way for rehabilitating some of these criminals. Counseling, programs, something different for just throwing a persons life away. Someone needs to create a change.

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