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Biden: Hatch Bill to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity is Good First Step, but Need to go Further

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Biden: Hatch Bill to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity is Good First Step, but Need to go Further

Biden to Soon Introduce Legislation that Eliminates the Sentencing Disparity Completely

U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs, commended Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) today for introducing a bill that takes an important step towards remedying the unwarranted disparity in the current statutory structure for cocaine sentencing.

Currently, it takes 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger the five- and ten-year mandatory minimum sentences under federal law. Senator Hatch's bill would reduce the disparity to a ratio of 20:1 without increasing penalties for powder cocaine.

"Senator Hatch has taken a bold and important step in the right direction, and I applaud his efforts," said Senator Biden. "But, we've got to go further and solve this problem for good. The current sentencing disparity between the two forms of cocaine is based on false notions and old logic. The bottom line is that there is no scientific justification for any disparity. Crack and powder are simply two forms of the same drug, and each form produces identical effects. I will soon be introducing legislation that eliminates the sentencing disparity completely, fixing this injustice once and for all. I look forward to working with Senator Hatch and others - Republicans and Democrats - and urge them to support righting this wrong."

Currently, it takes 100 times more powder cocaine than crack to trigger the five- and ten-year mandatory minimum sentences under federal law. In other words, powder cocaine offenders who traffic 500 grams of powder (2,500-5,000 doses) receive the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as crack cocaine offenders who possess just 5 grams of crack (10-50 doses). This disparity doesn't just apply to the mandatory minimum quantities, but it permeates the Sentencing Guidelines for cocaine trafficking offenses in amounts above and below the mandatory minimum thresholds.

Over twenty years ago, Congress enacted a sentencing scheme that punishes crack cocaine offenses far more severely than powder cocaine offenses. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported last month that this sentencing scheme is a terrible flaw in the criminal justice system, based on the misperceptions that the crack form of cocaine is inherently more addictive than the powder form and crack users are more violent than powder users. These assumptions have proven to be unfounded.

In its report, the U.S. Sentencing Commission "unanimously and strongly urge[d]" Congress to: (1) act swiftly to increase the threshold quantities of crack necessary to trigger the five- and ten-year mandatory minimum sentences, so that federal resources are focused on major drug traffickers as intended in the original 1986 legislation; and (2) repeal the mandatory minimum penalty sentence for simple possession of crack, the only controlled substance for which there is a mandatory minimum for a first time offense of simple possession. The Sentencing Commission also unanimously rejected any effort to increase the penalties for powder since there is no evidence to justify any such upward adjustment.

The report marks the fourth time since 1995 that the Sentencing Commission has called on Congress to address this sentencing disparity. The current federal cocaine sentencing structure, according to the report, "continues to come under almost universal criticism from representatives of the Judiciary, criminal justice practitioners, academics, and community interest groups….[T]he Commission maintains its consistently held position that the 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio significantly undermines the various congressional objectives set forth in the Sentencing Reform Act."

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is a bipartisan, independent agency under the judicial branch created by Congress in 1984 as part of the Sentencing Reform Act. The Commission works to establish sentencing policies and practices for the federal criminal justice community. To view the entire report, please click here: http://www.ussc.gov/r_congress/cocaine2007.pdf.


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