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

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #642)
Politics & Advocacy

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.

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the mandatory minimum sentence for possession of five grams or less of crack, marking the first time Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum since Richard Nixon was president, although not the first time a law involving mandatory minimums has been scaled back.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."

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."

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.


sicntired (not verified)

I can only assume that this was a compromise needed to get the bill through.Sad really when you consider there is really no difference between the two drugs as any hard core user will readily admit.Living in Canada I have no real knowledge of the true racist intent of the original legislation as most of the crack heads we have here are white and not always the poor.At least not in the beginning.I used to have a pretty nasty coke habit and always mixed it with my true drug of choice,Heroin.If I had a problem connecting(the police had this nasty habit of arresting my dealers every year or so)I often found it impossible to get my hands on powder,as most business is done in the base form or crack,which posed no problem if you have an elementary knowledge of chemistry.Crack is made by changing the acidic form known as powder into base by reverting the acid to alkali by cooking it with baking soda.It used to amuse me when that TV cop used to refer to coke as soda,nothing could be further from the truth.Anyway,if forced to score crack I would just use vinegar,an acid to allow the stuff to be injected,crack is not water soluable.Not the most easy thing to wrap your head around if not a hard core addict but to me it was all in a day's work.35 years of injecting just about anything has taken a lethal toll on my circulatory system and banging vinegar is just about the worst thing I've had to inject,if you exclude that lousy methadone mixed with tang.What a crap taste that leaves in your throat.Not as bad as the pills they used to supply us until everybody started to turn up at the emergency room with horrible abscesses.Those things were 99% chalk and truly the worst thing done to heroin addicts in all my years.An injection drug user will push just about anything to get high.I'm not going to gag you with some of the things I saw in prison.A sick junkie will do almost anything even if they know it's futile.Not pretty.What does this have to do with this bill?Not much except to show that addicts are addicts and trying to say one is worse than another because of their drug of choice is pure folly,the kind of thing you get from the typical politician trying to look tough on crime that he knows nothing about.I hear the perpetrator of the original act is history.Too bad he's left a trace of some truly abhorrent legislation in his wake.

Thu, 07/29/2010 - 1:42am Permalink

This is a longtime in coming. These people aren't hardened criminal's just cause their addicted to drugs anyways? Most of them aren't? I think that what they really need is to spend alot more time on Couseling, Treatment, program's that are going to help them get sucessfully off of the drugs. I am a former Addict's or this drug myself. I have now finished treatment for the hundredth time, I finally want to stop myself. So I have been clean & sober for the last 3+yrs now! But, It took me along time to be ready to quit. I wished I would have had more options in the past so I wouldn't have wasted the last 32yrs using drugs. I was poor and there isn't any other way to make fast money. Prostitution is not an option for me. I won't ever do such things. But, money to live and breathe was the drug problems start. I am sucessfully trying to help other's still addicted now, I want to help them to get clean any way that I can. Especially if they use cocaine, it's the worst drug out there, beside's Methamphetamine. I am happy to see that the sentences will be reduced for the help they need to receive to get off drugs, instead of jailtime or prison.It's a step in the right direction for the future's for these addicts & their families.

Fri, 07/30/2010 - 4:51pm Permalink
Ms Mc laughlin (not verified)

I wanted to know is the law suppose to be retroactive at the first of May 2011. I hope so, I have a loved one that is in jail for drugs and has been in there for year he has more time then one who has comited murder. I know he has served way more time then what he should have served it's not fair please help them all.

Mon, 02/28/2011 - 5:40pm Permalink
Ms Mc laughlin (not verified)

I have a love one who has been effected by the drug law and I must say he has served more time than he should have. We have people out here who has murdered someone and has gotten lesser time than people convited with drugs it's no fair please help our love ones come home pass the law make it retroactive so they can come home to start a new life.

Mon, 02/28/2011 - 5:43pm Permalink
dall (not verified)

In reply to by Ms Mc laughlin (not verified)

I pray for your love one and everyone else who has been effected by the unjust punishment.  I think that eventually congress will do something to help these people.  God help us

Fri, 03/18/2011 - 4:21pm Permalink

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