Senate Judiciary Committee Passes Bill to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The US Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday unanimously approved a bill that would reduce -- but not eliminate -- the disparity in sentencing for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses. Under the bill introduced by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), SB 1789, the disparity would have been completely eliminated, but the committee instead approved an amended version that reduces the ratio between crack and powder cocaine quantities from 100:1 to 20:1.


Under current federal law, it takes only five grams of crack to garner a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, while it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same prison time. Under the Senate bill, an ounce of crack will get you a five-year prison sentence while it would take more than a pound of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence. But even retaining the 20:1 disparity, advocates estimate that some 3,100 cases would be affected each year, with sentences reduced by an average of 30 months.

The amended bill also eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for crack cocaine possession. But it also directs the US Sentencing Commission to increase sentences for aggravating factors such as violence or bribery of a police officer.

"This is an exciting vote, but also disappointing," said Julie Stewart, head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "We hoped the committee would go further in making crack penalties the same as powder. There was no scientific basis for the 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine created 24 years ago, and there is no scientific basis for today’s vote of 20:1. However, if this imperfect bill becomes law, it will provide some long-overdue relief to thousands of defendants sentenced each year."

Stewart also noted with approval the elimination of the mandatory minimum sentence for simple crack possession. "If enacted, this legislation would repeal a mandatory minimum law for the first time since the Nixon administration," she said.

Stewart's sentiments were echoed by spokespersons for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which, like FAMM, has been lobbying on the Hill for years to undo the draconian and racially disparate impact of the federal crack laws. Although African-Americans make up only 30% of crack consumers, they account for 82% of all federal crack prosecution. Nearly two-thirds of all those convicted under the crack laws were low-level dealers or other minimally involved players.

"Today is a bittersweet day," said DPA's Jasmine Tyler. "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 Judiciary Committee, by reducing the 100:1 disparity to 20:1, instead of eliminating it, has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."

"It's pretty amazing when you think about everything the Republicans and Democrats are fighting over -- health care, budgets, all that -- this is the one thing they can all come together on," said DPA national affairs director Bill Piper, noting the unanimous committee vote.

A similar bill passed the House Judiciary Committee during this same session of Congress last July. Introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), HR 3245 completely eliminates the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses by simply removing all references to crack cocaine from the federal statute.

Now it is up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to get the respective measures to a floor vote. Advocates are urging the White House to support the House bill.

"We're urging people to be very clear to the House, the Senate, and the president that the disparity should be completely eliminated and not just reduced," said DPA's Piper. "The House bill is the one that should ultimately be voted out of Congress. Our challenge is to get the full 1:1 bill approved, not the 20:1. That said, even 20:1 is a step in the right direction," he added, noting the glacial, multi-stage pace of Rockefeller drug law reform in New York state.

"While Democrats and Republicans bicker over healthcare, unemployment, education and other issues, it’s good to see that they unanimously agree that US drug laws are too harsh and need to be reformed," said DPA's Tyler. "While many will benefit from this change, more needs to be done. The disparity must be completely eliminated, and President Obama and Speaker Pelosi will have to stand up firmly on the issue to make that a reality."

Now it is a matter of political will in the White House and among the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate, said Piper. "It is totally up to the House and Senate leadership to decide when and what they will take to the floor, but we have to do it this year, or everything dies, and we have to start over again next year."

The first significant rollback of a federal drug sentencing law in decades is drawing tantalizingly near after almost a quarter-century of hysteria-driven federal crack laws. Will the congressional Democrats have the gumption to push either the House bill or the Senate bill to a floor vote? Stay tuned.

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