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Congress: Senate Passes Bill to Reduce, But Not Eliminate, Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #624)
Politics & Advocacy

The US Senate approved on a voice vote Wednesday a bill that would reduce, but not eliminate, the disparity in sentences handed down to people convicted of crack versus powder cocaine charges. The bill championed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), S. 1789, would reduce the current, much maligned, 100:1 ratio to 18:1.

Senate disappoints
Under current law, it takes only five grams of crack cocaine to earn a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence, but 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. The law has been especially devastating in black communities, which make up about 30% of all crack consumers, but account for more than 80% of all federal crack prosecutions. Under the bill passes by the Senate, it would now take an ounce of crack for the mandatory minimums to kick in.

Durbin's bill originally called for completely eliminating the sentencing disparity, but was stalled until a Senate gym meeting between Durbin and opposition Judiciary Committee heavy-hitters Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL). After that informal confab, the bill was amended to 18:1 and passed unanimously last week by the committee.

A bill in the House by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) that would completely eliminate the disparity by the simple act of eliminating all references to crack in the federal statute, HR 3245, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last July, but has not come to a floor vote. Now that the Senate has approved its bill, pressure will be on the House to just approve the Senate version.

Sen. Durbin told the Associated Press that while he had originally sought to completely eliminate the disparity, the final bill was a good compromise. "If this bill is enacted into law, it will immediately ensure that every year, thousands of people are treated more fairly in our criminal justice system," he said.

Durbin added that the harsher treatment of crack offenders combined with federal prosecutors' predilection for disproportionately going after black crack offenders had eroded respect for the law. "Law enforcement experts say that the crack-powder disparity undermines trust in the criminal justice system, especially in the African-American community."

But drug reformers and civil rights groups that had pushed for complete elimination of the sentencing disparity had a definitely mixed reaction to the Senate vote. It was progress, but not enough, they said.

"We strongly supported Sen. Durbin's bill, which would have completely eliminated the disparity," said Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights in a statement Wednesday. Adding that the group was "disappointed" that disparities remain, Henderson said that "this legislation represents progress, but not the end of the fight."

"Today is a bittersweet day," said Jasmine Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance in a Wednesday statement. "On one hand, we've moved the issue of disparate sentencing for two forms of the same drug forward, restoring some integrity to our criminal justice system. But, on the other hand, the Senate, by reducing the 100:1 disparity to 18:1, instead of eliminating it, has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."

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.


Jean Boyd (not verified)

Sorry, not good enough. How do you, with a sane mind, take something that is very wrong and make it a little less wrong? Hatch and Sessions need to be released.

Fri, 03/19/2010 - 3:58pm Permalink
rita (not verified)

to be unjust, every sentence passed under that law should be immediately vacated, every human being unjustly sentenced immediately released. No questions asked. But then, these monsters who call themselves "lawmakers" have known for years that their mandatory minimums were racist, just like their holy war. Those who accept this compromise, pretending it's some sort of victory, are no better.

Thu, 03/25/2010 - 11:24pm Permalink
55 and tired (not verified)

Apparently you have never used cocaine of either form or worked in drug rehab center. Cocaine users, for the majority, do not loose everything and steal to get the next high.

furthermore, if this is a racial issue then lets definitely lower the penalities for meth users. Penalities are very high for meth, which is a predominately white drug that also destroys and kills.

Wed, 04/07/2010 - 3:38pm Permalink

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