Committee Advances Bill To Address Crack/Powder Sentencing Disparity

WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously voted to advance historic legislation to address the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.  The Fair Sentencing Act was introduced last year by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a senior member of the panel, Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and others.

Current law sets out a ratio of 100:1 in terms of the amount of powder cocaine and the amount of crack cocaine that result in the same sentence.  The Fair Sentencing Act, as introduced, would have provided equal treatment under law, creating a 1:1 ratio.  A bipartisan, compromise amendment adopted by the Committee on Thursday would establish the ratio at 18:1.

“I strongly support the 1:1 ratio in Senator Durbin’s original bill, and I believe that comprehensive change would truly restore a sense of justice to federal drug enforcement and help to restore faith in the system in many communities where that faith has been lost,” said Leahy.  “At the same time, Congress has waited more than 20 years to fix this problem. While we fail to act, thousands of men and women serve in prison for years and years, while those who are more privileged serve much shorter sentences for essentially the same crime. This is unfair, and we need to fix it now.”

Leahy continued, “Senator Durbin has worked hard on this compromise.  This solution is far from perfect, but it offers an opportunity to get this done and make an important and bipartisan change in this policy this year, one that will move us closer to achieving fairness in our sentencing laws.”

Leahy first included the Fair Sentencing Act on the Judiciary Committee’s agenda for a business meeting on December 10, more than three months ago.

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 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 Fair Sentencing Act will also refocus federal resources toward large scale, violent traffickers and increase penalties for the worst drug offenders. 

The bill is cosponsored by Crime and Drugs Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter (D-Pa.); Senators Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), and Al Franken (D-Minn.), members of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and Jim Webb (D-Va.)

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Click here to read a statement from the U.S. Attorney General on this bill.

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