Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

By:  Joe Biden, Jr.
Date: June 27, 2007
Location: Washington, DC


STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - June 27, 2007)

By Mr. BIDEN (for himself, Mr. SPECTER, Mr. ALEXANDER, Mr. CARPER, Mr. CARDIN, Mr. COCHRAN, Mr. KENNEDY, Mr. KERRY, Mr. LEVIN, and Mr. OBAMA):

S. 1709. A bill to amend the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998 to provide additional staff and oversight of funds to carry out the Act, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, I rise today to introduce, with my good friend and colleague from Pennsylvania, Senator Specter, the Underground Railroad Network Reauthorization Act of 2007. The original act, signed into law in 1998, has increased public awareness of the Underground Railroad, a cornerstone in African-American heritage and history, with sites and programs in 28 States and the District of Columbia. This is the only national program dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and dissemination of underground railroad history. I am pleased that we are joined in this effort by Senators ALEXANDER, CARPER, CARDIN, COCHRAN, KENNEDY, KERRY, LEVIN and OBAMA.

Throughout this Nation there are sites in the underground railroad network that, while still standing, have suffered structural damage. There are also many sites that no longer house a physical structure, but still are important to recognize. A good example is the Thomas Garrett House, located in Wilmington in my home State of Delaware. The Garrett House was the last station on the Underground Railroad before the slaves reached freedom in Pennsylvania. It has been estimated that Garrett, a well known Quaker, helped more than 2,000 runaway slaves escape from the Southern States. The legislation being introduced today will not only help pay to repair damaged structures, but also to educate the general public about those sites that are no longer in existence, like the Thomas Garrett House.

The underground railroad network is a special part of American history that we cannot afford to let slip away. This legislation will preserve these invaluable memorials and educational resources by raising the authorization level from $500,000 to $2.5 million. We must move now to ensure that the brave acts of these individuals are preserved for future generations to observe and honor.

A companion bill has already been introduced in the House by Representatives, H.R. 1239, by Representative ALCEE L. HASTINGS and my friend and colleague from Delaware, Representative MIKE CASTLE. I hope both Chambers move quickly to preserve this precious history.

It is my honor to ask my colleagues here in the Senate to join me today in supporting this bill so that this part of our Nation's past will not be forgotten.

By Mr. BIDEN:

S. 1711. A bill to target cocaine kingpins and address sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine; to the Committee on the Judiciary.

Mr. BIDEN. Mr. President, 20 years ago, I helped write the law that established the current Federal cocaine sentencing scheme. Under this law, it takes 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine to trigger the 5- and 10-year mandatory minimum sentences. And mere possession of five grams of crack, the weight of about two sugar cubes, gets you the same 5-year mandatory minimum penalty as trafficking 500 grams of the powder form of cocaine, which is equivalent to about a 1 pound bag of sugar.

The facts that informed our decision at the time have proved to be wrong, making the underlying cocaine sentencing structure we created unfounded and unfair. It is time to change the law to reflect this new understanding. That is why, today, I am introducing the Drug Sentencing Reform & Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007, which eliminates this unjustified disparity in Federal cocaine sentencing policy.

Back in 1986, when we wrote the law that established the current sentencing structure, crack was hitting our streets and communities like a storm. I remember one headline that I think summed it up. It read ``New York City Being Swamped by `Crack'; Authorities Say They Are Almost Powerless to Halt Cocaine.'' That summer was called ``the summer of crack,'' and we were inundated with horror stories about how this new form of smokeable cocaine was ravaging communities. We were told that crack was instantly addictive, prompting the expression, ``Once on crack, you never go back.'' We heard that it caused users to go on violent rampages, was more harmful to babies than powder cocaine when used by mothers during pregnancy, and would lead to the disintegration of inner-city communities.

And in Congress, there was a feeling of desperation that summer, a sense that we had to give law enforcement the power they needed to save neighborhoods being ravaged by this drug.

More than a dozen bills were introduced to increase the penalties for this form of cocaine, but because we knew so little about it, the proposals were all over the map. They ranged from the Reagan administration's proposal of a 20-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine to a 1000-to-1 disparity proposed by Senator Lawton Chiles. I joined Senators Byrd and Dole in leading the effort to enact the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established the current 100-to-1 disparity.

Our intentions were good, but as further scientific and sociological study has shown, we got it wrong.

We now know that these initial assumptions about crack and powder cocaine, which are just two forms of the same drug, simply were not true. Scientific evidence shows that crack does not have unique, inherent properties that make it instantly addictive. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, ``cocaine in any form produces the same physiological and subjective effects.'' We also have learned that the dire predictions about a generation of ``crack babies'' whose mothers used crack during pregnancy have not proven true. The negative effects of prenatal exposure to crack cocaine and powder cocaine are identical. Furthermore, data that the U.S. Sentencing Commission has collected show that crack users rarely commit acts of violence. Almost all crack-related violence is associated with trafficking, not with someone on a so-called crack-induced rampage.

Looking back over more than 20 years, it is also clear that the harsh crack penalties have had a disproportionate impact on the African American community. Eighty-two percent of those convicted of crack offenses at the Federal level are African American, fueling the notion that the Federal cocaine sentencing scheme is unfair.

There is widespread recognition that the current cocaine sentencing scheme is out of date and out of touch with reality. There are others here in the Senate, on both sides of the aisle, who feel the current cocaine sentencing policy is unfounded. Like me, Senators Sessions and HATCH have introduced legislation to reduce the disparity and I want to congratulate them for their hard work and dedication to this issue.

As a matter of fact, when President Bush was asked about the longer sentences for crack cocaine, he said that the disparity, and I am quoting the President here, ``ought to be addressed by making sure the powder cocaine and crack cocaine penalties are the same. I don't believe we ought to be discriminatory.''

A slew of commentators, Federal judges, Federal prosecutors, doctors, academics, social scientists, civil rights leaders, clergy, and others have spoken out about the unwarranted disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.

And just last month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a bipartisan panel comprised in large part of Federal judges who preside over cocaine cases, issued a report stating that the current Federal cocaine sentencing scheme ``continues to come under almost universal criticism from representatives of the Judiciary, criminal justice practitioners, academics, and community interest groups.''

This is not the first time the Sentencing Commission has urged reform. In 1995, the Commission recommended eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity. Congress rejected this proposal. As scientific understanding of cocaine evolved, the Commisson urged Congress three more times to address this problem. Yet Congress did not act. We are long overdue in heeding the call for reform.

The Sentencing Cmission has provided us with a roadmap. In its most recent report, the Commission ``unanimously and strongly urge[d]'' Congress to: 1. Act swiftly to increase the threshold quantities of crack necessary to trigger the 5- and 10-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.

My bill implements all of these recommendations.

Specifically, my bill will eliminate the current 100-to-1 disparity by increasing the 5-year mandatory minimum threshold quantity for crack cocaine to 500 grams, from 5 grams, and the 10-year threshold quantity to 5,000 grams, from 50 grams, while maintaining the current statutory mandatory minimum threshold quantities for powder cocaine. It will also eliminate the current 5-year mandatory minimum penalty for simple possession of crack cocaine, the only mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of a drug by a first time offender.

It also increases penalties for major drug traffickers and provides additional resources for the Federal agencies that investigate and prosecute drug offenses. Furthermore, because I have always believed that the best approach to fighting crime is a holistic one that incorporates enforcement, prevention, and treatment, my bill authorizes funds for prison- and jail-based drug treatment programs.

My bill both remedies the historic injustice in the current cocaine sentencing laws and focuses Federal resources on, and increases penalties for, the big fish, the major drug traffickers and kingpins who drive the drug trade. Unlike Federal powder cocaine offenders, over half of Federal crack offenders are low-level street dealers who could and should be prosecuted at the State level. States are better equipped to handle these small-time dealers and users, and under my bill, these offenders would still be punished, without expending precious Federal resources.

Drug use is a serious problem, and I have long supported strong antidrug legislation. But in addition to being tough, our drug laws should be rational and fair. My bill achieves the right balance. We have talked about the need to address this cocaine sentencing disparity for long enough. It is time to act. I hope that my colleagues will join with me to support this legislation.