Durbin Introduces Bill to End Crack/powder Sentencing Disparity

Press Release October 14, 2009

WASHINGTON, DC–Today, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-IL, introduced The Fair Sentencing Act of 2009, which would put an end to over two decades of excessively punitive sentencing policy for crack cocaine offenses. The Obama Administration endorsed eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity during hearings on the issue.

“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, twenty three years is too long to wait for justice to be served.”

Under the current sentencing disparity, enacted under the 1986 and 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Acts, only five grams of crack cocaine (the equivalent of the contents of two sugar packets) triggers a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. It takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence. Further, crack cocaine is also the only drug for which there is a federal mandatory minimum sentence of five years for simple possession. Advocates refer to the sentencing disparity as the 100:1 disparity because crack cocaine is punished 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine.

“Drug use is a serious problem in America and we need tough legislation to combat it. But in addition to being tough, our drug laws must be smart and fair. Our current cocaine laws are not,” Durbin said. “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.”

Copious amounts of research, including four studies by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, have shown that the myths first associated with crack cocaine, and the basis for the harsher sentencing scheme, were erroneous or exaggerated. Moreover, scientific evidence, including a major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, has proven that crack and powder cocaine have similar physiological and psychoactive effects on the human body.

Last year the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced sentences for crack cocaine offenses and the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled that judges have the authority to sentence people below the guidelines. But judges are still bound by the statutory mandatory minimum sentences that Congress enacted in the late 80s, and those mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are the source of the 100:1 crack/powder sentencing disparity. In the last Congress, then-Senator Biden introduced similar legislation which was supported by then-Senators Obama and Clinton.

“Knowing that the Obama Administration believes in the elimination of the 100:1 crack/powder sentencing disparity, and that Senator Durbin will lead the charge in the Senate, gives me great hope that 23 years of draconian sentencing policy will shortly come to a close,” Tyler said. “For too long, African Americans have been unjustly exposed to this extreme sentencing scheme that has devastated communities of color, weakened the perception of justice and equality under the law, and undermined law enforcement’s ability to ensure public safety.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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