Senate Committee Unanimously Approves Bill to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

Press Release March 10, 2010
Media Contact

Jasmine Tyler at (202) 294-8292 or Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed legislation reducing the two-decade old sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The original bill, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009 (S. 1789), was introduced by Sen. Durbin, D-IL, and was intended to completely eliminate the disparity. The legislation was amended in committee, however, to just reduce the disparity, in order to get bipartisan and unanimous support. The final vote was 19-0.

Under current laws, a person must be in possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same mandatory minimum penalties as a person possessing just 5 grams of crack cocaine. This discrepancy, known as the 100-to-1 ratio, was enacted in the late 1980s and was based on myths about crack cocaine. The ratio has caused a myriad of problems including perpetuating racial disparities, wasting fiscal resources, and targeting low-level offenders. African Americans comprise 82 percent of those convicted for federal crack cocaine offenses but only 30 percent of crack users, and 62 percent of people convicted for crack offenses were low-level sellers or lookouts.

“Today is a bittersweet day,” said Jasmine L. Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance. “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 to 1 disparity to 20 to 1, instead of eliminating it, has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010.”

Equalizing sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine would eliminate the most glaring instance of racial disparities in our criminal justice system and focus federal law enforcement resources on the highest-level traffickers. The Senate legislation would reduce the 100-1 disparity to 20-1. Legislation completely eliminating the disparity passed the House Judiciary Committee last year. Advocates are urging the White House to fight for passage of the House bill.

“While Democrats and Republicans bicker over healthcare, unemployment, education and other issues, it’s good to see that they unanimously agree that U.S. drug laws are too harsh and need to be reformed,” said. 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.”

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