U.S. HOUSE TO CONSIDER BILL TO REDUCE DISCRIMINATION IN CRACK AND POWDER COCAINE SENTENCING TODAY

CRUCIAL BILL BEGINS REDUCING SENTENCING DISPARITY FROM 100:1 TO 18:1 THE ISSUE

 

The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to consider S. 1789 TODAY, Wednesday, July 28, 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009 which would reduce the mandatory minimum sentence for a federal conviction of crack cocaine possession from 100 times that of people convicted of carrying the drug in powdered form to 18 times the sentence. This compromise legislation passed the United States Senate late in the evening of Wednesday, March 17, 2010, by unanimous consent (without a recorded vote). The NAACP supports this legislation as an important first step toward completely eliminating this racially discriminatory sentencing disparity.

The NAACP appreciates all of the hard work that has gone into this legislation, as well as the fact that it is the first time Congress has moved to reduce any mandatory minimum sentence. The NAACP also recognizes and appreciates that everyone involved in the negotiations seems to agree that the current 100:1 sentencing disparity has had a hugely unfair and racially discriminatory impact on racial and ethnic minority Americans. The NAACP will continue, however, to push for complete elimination of the disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.

Currently, as a result of 1986 federal law, there is a huge (100 to 1) sentencing disparity between the penalty for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Specifically, a person must possess 500 grams of powder cocaine before they are subject to the same mandatory minimum prison sentence (5 years) as an individual who is convicted of possessing just 5 grams of crack cocaine (despite the fact that pharmacologically, these two drugs are identical). At the time this law was passed, crack cocaine was a fairly new drug and there were concerns (which have subsequently been disproven) that crack is much more harmful than powder cocaine. One of the effects of this law is that small-scale crack cocaine users are punished much more severely than powder cocaine users, their suppliers and distributors, although the illegal component of both drugs is cocaine.

Everyone seems to agree that crack cocaine use is higher among Caucasians than any other group: most authorities estimate that more than 66% of those who use crack cocaine are white. Yet in 2006, 82% of those convicted and sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were African American. When you add in Hispanics, the percentage climbs to above 96%. Since enactment of this law, the 100 to 1 ratio has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the African American and Hispanic communities. Because of the mandatory minimum jail sentence for those convicted of possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine or more, people of color are being put in prisons at much higher rates than their Caucasian counterparts, and the judges have no discretion to mitigate the sentence for first-time or nonviolent offenders or special circumstances.

It is estimated that if passed as written, the legislation reducing the sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1 will result in 4,000 fewer Americans being in jail in 10 years.

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