NAACP-Supported Legislation to Reduce Cocaine Sentencing Disparities Passed By U.S. House, Senate

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- The NAACP applauds Congress for passing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009. This landmark piece of legislation will reduce the 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. The NAACP supported this legislation as an important first step toward completely eliminating this racially discriminatory sentencing disparity.

"The NAACP is extremely pleased that Congress took this monumental step in sentencing disparity and we urge President Obama to sign this legislation immediately," stated NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. "Everyone seems to agree that crack cocaine use is higher among Caucasians than any other group. 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. This legislation is just the first step in eliminating disparities in sentencing and we will continue to push for the elimination of this racially discriminatory sentencing disparity," added Jealous.

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.

"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, regardless of how racially discriminatory they may be. 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. Even with this great and historic victory, the NAACP will continue, however, to push for complete elimination of the disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing," stated Hilary O. Shelton, NAACP's Washington Bureau Director and Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Policy.

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.

Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors.

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