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Senate Judiciary Committe Advances Crack/Powder Cocaine Bill

March 11, 2010 - by Eric Naing

Criminal penalties for crack versus powder cocaine touch on a wide range of issues from race to state budgets to overcrowding of prisons. The Senate Judiciary Committee today took on the issue by unanimously voting to advance a bill that would reduce the wide disparity in sentencing for possession of the two.

Donny earlier explained the the absurdity of the current law governing sentences for crack and powder cocaine:

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.

Sen. Dick Durbin’s [D, IL] Fair Sentencing Act decreases that ratio from 100:1 to 1:1. But an amended version of the bill passed by the Judiciary committee today reduced the ratio to 20:1.

The American Prospect’s Adam Serwer explains the racial implications of this disparity:

More than 80 percent of those arrested for crack have been black (despite the fact that most crack users are white)… More than 20 years since the passage of the law, the arbitrarily draconian penalties for crack cocaine have contributed to the increasing racial disparities in the U.S. prison system and helped swell the number of those behind bars to fully more than 1 percent of the entire U.S. population.

Significantly, the bill also eliminates the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of cocaine.

Julie Stewart, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, is disappointed that the ration wasn’t reduced to 1:1, but acknowledges that Durbin’s bill represents significant progress on this issue:

This is an exciting vote, but also disappointing. We hoped the Committee would go further in making crack penalties the same as powder. There was no scientific basis for the 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine created 24 years ago, and there is no scientific basis for today’s vote of 20:1. However, if this imperfect bill becomes law, it will provide some long-overdue relief to thousands of defendants sentenced each year.

A similar House bill (H.R.3245) was passed by the House Judiciary Committee last summer.


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