Act shrinks cocaine sentencing disparity

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The nation is one step closer to closing the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses, thanks to The Fair Sentencing Act passed last week by the U.S. Senate.

The nation is one step closer to closing the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses, thanks to The Fair Sentencing Act passed last week by the U.S. Senate. The bill, introduced  by Ill. Sen. Dick Durbin, decreases the gaping 100 to 1 sentencing difference down to 18 to 1. As it is now – and has been since 1986 – possession of five grams (roughly a the size of a sugar cube) of crack cocaine meant a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. Conversely, that was the same sentence given for having 500 grams (about one pound) of powder cocaine. The five grams of crack cocaine versus 500 grams of powder cocaine was considered a 100 to 1 disparity. Civil rights leaders and other advocacy groups long considered the sentencing difference racist, since it disproportionately affected African Americans.  Durbin agreed. “What we have today, 100 to 1, is totally unjust,” Durbin told the Defender. “It is not only a harsh sentence, it is unfair to one group of Americans.” Published reports indicate that African Americans make up about 30 percent of the crack users and 80 percent of those convicted of federal crack offenses. The Act was unanimously passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee then passed unopposed by the full Senate. It cuts first time offenders a lot of slack in sentencing – at least 5 years worth. It had been at least a yearlong battle getting the Act through the Judiciary Committee, Durbin explained. And he had hoped to completely eliminate the sentencing disparity by making it 1 to 1 but the current compromise was what could be reached with Republican senators without totally killing the measure, he said. Though not exactly what Durbin and his junior colleague, Sen. Roland Burris would have hoped for, Durbin called even 18 to 1 a “dramatic improvement” over the current law. Burris echoed that. “I’m not satisfied with 18 to 1. There should be no difference,” Burris told the Defender. “Cocaine is cocaine.” They both agree that even with compromise, the reduction is better than none at all. “I wasn’t going to stop it, then the law would stay the same,” Burris said, accounting for his part in the unanimous Senate consent. Both Democrats point to the ravages of drugs in the nation’s communities, in general, but especially in the Black community. Still, the law’s disparity helped create more havoc than it helped to resolve some of the drug problems in the Black community, Burris explained. “We got individuals in federal prisons who really need treatment more than they need incarceration,” he said. “Especially the first time users.” Despite the Senate’s approval and the compromise, “this isn’t the end of the battle,” Durbin said. The bill moves on to House for approval and both senators said they have talked to members of the Congressional Black Caucus to relay that, ideally, Durbin and Burris hope 1 to 1 is passed. 

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