Via the ACLU:
WASHINGTON – The Senate this evening voted by unanimous consent to pass a bill that would make crucial changes to current cocaine sentencing laws. The bill, the Fair Sentencing Act, was originally introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) to eliminate the discriminatory 100-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing under federal law. During the bill’s markup last week, however, a compromise was reached with Republican Judiciary Committee members that reduces the disparity to a 18-1 ratio. A bill addressing the disparity in the House, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act, was passed by the House Judiciary Committee last year and currently awaits a vote by the full chamber.
More than two decades ago, based on assumptions about crack which are now known to be false, heightened penalties for crack cocaine offenses were adopted. Sentences for crack are currently equivalent to the sentences for 100 times the amount of powder cocaine, and the impact falls disproportionately on African Americans. In recent years, a consensus has formed across the political and ideological spectrum on the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity issue with both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama urging reform.
The American Civil Liberties Union believes the Fair Sentencing Act is a step toward a fairer system but falls short of adequately fixing the existing unjust sentencing gap.
The following can be attributed to Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office:
“The Fair Sentencing Act is an encouraging step toward eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine but still allows for a needlessly unfair sentencing framework. The unanimous passage of this bill speaks to the understanding across the political spectrum that this disparity is unjust and in need of reform. Years of research has yielded no evidence of any appreciable difference between crack and powder cocaine and yet we continue to inflict this disparity on Americans.
“For over two decades, this sentencing disparity has been a stain on our justice system. Though this bill’s passage is long overdue, it does not go far enough. Without a simple and fair 1-1 sentencing ratio for crack and powder cocaine, we cannot say that these sentencing laws meet constitutional muster.”
For those who don’t know how this sentencing disparity works, it’s not that crack sentences were 100 times as long as powder. It had to do with the amount of drug necessary to trigger a particular minimum.
Under the old method, 5 grams of crack would trigger a 5 year mandatory federal minimum, while it would take 500 grams of powder to trigger the same minimum. Durbin’s proposal had been to eliminate the difference entirely, so that crack would move to the same formula as powder.
The watered down version means that it’ll take about 28 grams of crack (instead of 5) to trigger the 5 year minimum, and the separate mandatory minimum for mere possession of crack is eliminated.
I wouldn’t call it a victory, but certainly a step in the right direction. And thanks to Dick Durbin for pushing for this. More could happen when this is reconciled with the House Bill, which passed with full elimination in committee, but has not been acted on by the full House.