U.S. Senate Unanimously Approves Bill to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

Press Release March 16, 2010
Media Contact

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

Tonight, the U.S. Senate unanimously 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 amended legislation passed tonight under an expedited process used for uncontroversial bills.

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, by reducing the 100 to 1 disparity to 18 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 18-1. Legislation completely eliminating the disparity passed the House Judiciary Committee last year.

“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. We consider this legislation to be a down payment on completely eliminating the disparity.”

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

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