Bill Piper at (202) 669-6430 or Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384
The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously today to make a recent amendment reducing recommended sentences for crack cocaine offenses retroactive. The practical effect is to make up to 19,500 currently incarcerated individuals eligible for early release. Their release would be phased in over the next 30 years and is expected to save taxpayers a billion dollars or more. Federal courts would have the power to deny a sentencing reduction to people who pose a risk to society.
“This is a bold step forward in the campaign to reduce the damage the war on drugs is causing,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and incarcerated millions of Americans – disproportionately black or brown Americans -yet drugs are as available as ever. It’s time to start treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue.”
The Sentencing Commission’s decision comes a day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal judges can sentence individuals below the guideline recommendation in crack cocaine cases. The combination of both rulings puts enormous pressure on Congress to change the statutory mandatory minimums that punish crack cocaine offenses one hundred times more severely than powder cocaine offenses.
Three crack/powder reform bills have been introduced in the Senate. Two of the bills, introduced by Republican Senators Jeff Sessions from Alabama and Orrin Hatch from Utah, reduce the disparity but do not eliminate it. The third bill, introduced by Democratic Senator Joe Biden from Delaware, would completely eliminate the disparity. The Senate is expected to have hearings on the legislation in February.
Democratic Representative Charles Rangel from New York has introduced the only bill on the House side that would eliminate the disparity by equalizing the sentences for crack and powder cocaine at the current level of powder. This bill has garnered co-sponsorship, but no hearings have been scheduled yet. The House Democratic leadership has reportedly prohibited committees from dealing with the issue. In October representatives from dozens of criminal justice organizations signed a letter urging Congress to have hearings on the crack/powder disparity, including the ACLU, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National Bar Association, National Black Police Association, National Conference of Black Political Scientists, and The United Methodist Church.
“The biggest obstacle to eliminating the racist crack/powder disparity is not the Bush Administration or law enforcement, it’s the House Democratic leadership,” said Piper. “While the Supreme Court, the Sentencing Commission and Senate Democrats and Republicans push forward with reform, House Democrats won’t even have hearings on the issue. Their silence on this issue is sending a signal to communities across the country that they don’t care about reducing racial disparities.”