Senate Panel to Take Up Crack/Powder Cocaine Senetencing DisparityJanuary 27, 2010 - by Donny Shaw
Did you know that it takes only 5 grams of crack cocaine to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, but it takes 500 grams to trigger the same sentence for possession of powder cocaine? That’s a 100:1 ratio, and, since crack cocaine is generally an poor, urban, black drug and powder cocaine is generally an upper-class, white, suburban drug, it looks a lot like institutionalized racism.
Every year since 1994, bills have been introduced in Congress to correct this sentencing disparity in federal drug laws. It has been the subject of a handful of committee hearings over the years — a sort of acknowledgment by Congress that “hey, maybe we should be looking into this” — but the bills never saw any real forward movement.
This year, however, with the Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House, the bill is actually moving forward in the legislative process for the first time ever. It has a good chance of becoming law before the current session of Congress ends.
The House Judiciary Committee approved approved the House version of the bill (H.R. 3245) by a 16-9 vote in July. Tomorrow, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a vote on their version of the bill (S. 1789). It’s expected to be approved on a party-line vote.
The bills will then have to be approved by the full Senate and full House before they can be signed into law by President Obama (who, btw, supports the bill).
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national group that fights for fair sentencing laws, explains exactly what the bill would do:
- Equalize the amount of crack and powder cocaine required to trigger mandatory minimums: 500 grams will require five years and 5 kilograms will require 10 years, no matter what form of cocaine is involved;
- Eliminate the five-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine;
- Call for increased penalties for drug offenses involving vulnerable victims, violence and other aggravating factors; and
- Require a report on the effectiveness of federally funded drug courts.
The bill is not retroactive, meaning that it would not apply to anyone arrested before the bill becomes law.