President Obama signed legislation on Tuesday reducing sentencing disparities between those caught with crack and those arrested with powder cocaine. The legislation was a compromise reached by Democrats and Republicans who agreed that the old law imposed unduly harsh sentences for crack violations, which especially affected minorities, compared with powder cocaine violations. Under the old law, a person caught with five grams of crack received a mandatory five years in prison, while a person caught with powder cocaine had to have 500 grams to merit the same term. The new law reduces the 100-to-1 disparity to 18-to-1.
The New York Times
July 28, 2010
Congress Moves to Narrow Cocaine Sentencing Disparities
By Erik Eckholm
The House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that would reduce the disparities between mandatory federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine violations, a step toward ending what legal experts say have been unfairly harsh punishments imposed mainly on blacks.
The bill, which passed the Senate in March, was adopted by the House in a voice vote and now goes to President Obama for his signature.
Administration officials have described the sentencing disparity as “fundamentally unfair,” and Mr. Obama said during the 2008 presidential campaign that it “disproportionately filled our prisons with young black and Latino drug users.”
Under the current law, adopted in 1986 after a surge in crack cocaine smoking and drug-related killings, someone convicted in federal court of possession of five grams of crack must be sentenced to at least five years in prison, and possession of 10 grams requires a 10-year minimum sentence. With powder cocaine, the threshold amounts for those mandatory sentences are 100 times as high.
In the bill passed Wednesday, the amount of crack that would invoke a five-year minimum sentence is raised to 28 grams, said to be roughly the amount a dealer might carry, and for a 10-year sentence, 280 grams.
While crack use has declined since the 1980s, arrests remain common, and some 80 percent of those convicted on crack charges in recent years have been black. A growing number of criminologists have concluded that the sentencing disparity is unjustified and has subjected tens of thousands of blacks to lengthy prison terms while offering more lenient punishment to users and sellers of powder cocaine, who are more often white.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that under the new law, shorter sentences for possessors of small amounts of crack will save the federal prison system about $42 million over the next five years.
* NATIONAL BRIEFING | WASHINGTON; Cocaine Sentencing Bill Advances (March 18, 2010)