Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), joined by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Crime and Drugs Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter (D-PA), and seven other Senators, introduced legislation today to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act would refocus scarce federal resources toward large scale, violent traffickers and increase penalties for the worst drug offenders. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, restoring sentencing parity would do more than any other policy change to close the gap in incarceration rates between African Americans and whites. The Obama Administration endorsed eliminating the sentencing disparity at a hearing chaired by Durbin in April.
"Drug use is a serious problem in America and we need tough legislation to combat it. But in addition to being tough, our drug laws must be smart and fair. Our current cocaine laws are not," Durbin said. "The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine has contributed to the imprisonment of African Americans at six times the rate of whites and to the United States' position as the world's leader in incarcerations. Congress has talked about addressing this injustice for long enough; it's time for us to act."
Under current law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine (roughly the weight of two sugar cubes) triggers a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, while trafficking 500 grams (approximately one pound) of powder cocaine triggers the same sentence. The so-called 100:1 sentencing disparity has been in place since 1986. The Fair Sentencing Act would eliminate the disparity, treating crack and powder cocaine equally.
"This legislation offers reasonable and much-needed reform in crack cocaine sentencing under federal law," Specter said. "Eliminating the unfair and unwarranted sentencing disparity between crack offenses and cocaine offenses is long overdue and represents an important step in addressing our drug laws' discriminatory consequences."
The dramatically higher penalties for crack have disproportionately affected the African American community. While only 25 percent of crack users are African American, they constituted 81 percent of those convicted for crack offenses in 2007. The current drug sentencing policy is also the single greatest cause of the record levels of incarceration in our country. One in every thirty-one Americans is in prison, on parole, or on probation, including one in eleven African-Americans. Over 50% of current federal inmates are imprisoned for drug crimes.
"Today, the criminal justice system has unfair and biased cocaine penalties that undermine the Constitution's promise of equal treatment for all Americans. To have faith in our system Americans must have confidence that the laws of this country, including our drug laws, are fair and administered fairly," Chairman Leahy said. "I believe the Fair Sentencing Act will move us one step closer to reaching that goal. I commend Senator Durbin for his leadership in fixing this decades-old injustice. We should do what we can to restore public confidence in our criminal justice system. Correcting biases in our criminal sentencing laws is a step in that direction."
The current law was a response to the explosion in crack use around the country in the 1980's. At the time, crack was believed to be more harmful, and its users far more violent, than powder cocaine users. However, current research has shown that there is little difference between the physiological impact of crack and powder cocaine. The research has also shown that crack is not linked to significantly more violence than powder cocaine. Today, only ten percent of crack cocaine cases involve violence.
The Fair Sentencing Act will:
Eliminate the sentencing disparity by instituting a 1:1 ratio for crack and powder sentencing.
Increase the quantity of crack cocaine needed to trigger a mandatory sentence. Under this new law, possession of 500 grams of crack and 500 grams of powder cocaine would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. Similarly, 5,000 grams of crack or powder would trigger a 10-year sentence.
Direct federal resources toward large-scale drug trafficking cases and violent offenders by increasing the number of aggravating factors subject to higher penalties.
A broad coalition of legal, law enforcement, civil rights, and religious groups from across the political spectrum supports eliminating the crack-powder disparity, including Attorney General Holder, Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton, Miami Police Chief John Timoney, the American Bar Association, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Black Police Association, and the United Methodist Church.
In addition to Senators Leahy and Specter, the bill is cosponsored by Judiciary Committee Members Feingold (D-WI), Cardin (D-MD), Whitehouse (D-RI), Kaufman (D-DE), and Franken (D-MN). Senators Kerry (D-MA) and Dodd (D-CT) are also original cosponsors.