House to vote on crack-cocaine sentencing laws

justice

The House of Representatives may take action this week to drastically reduce inequality in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine users.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 would eliminate mandatory minimums for crack possession, impose stiff penalties on big drug traffickers, and reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

Currently "a person with five grams of crack cocaine - the weight of two sugar packets - receives the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as someone with 500 grams of cocaine, which is about a pound."

Harsh laws were passed in the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic imposing stiffer penalties for the new and cheaper form of cocaine.

The Washington Post recently editorialized that the "The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 brings fairness and sanity to this 20-year saga."

Most users of crack were Black and Latino. Mandatory minimums for crack possession led to extreme overcrowding in prisons and jails across the country. Class and racially-based patterns were apparent.

The old law "resulted in misdirection of federal enforcement resources to focusing on low-level dealers rather than the pursuit and prosecution of high-level traffickers.

According to the Sentencing Project, 55 percent of federal crack cocaine defendants are street-level dealers whereas only 1.8 percent are high-level suppliers." Civilrights.org notes that over 80 of those serving sentences for crack possession are African American.

Domestic and international drug suppliers will now be targeted. "The Fair Sentencing Act empowers a federal judge to fine a major drug trafficker $10 million on each count (if it is only his first offense), or $20 million on each count if he has any kind of drug conviction. These new fines - probably the harshest in the history of criminal law - both simplify getting the assets and ought to encourage the Justice Department to target drug lords who can pay such fines." 

The new bill is the result of an agreement reached in the Senate where Republicans have long been an obstacle to sentencing reform. Senators Dick Durban, D-Ill., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., jointly co-sponsored Fair Sentencing Act, which passed by the Senate earlier in the year.

Benefits of the new legislation include reduced spending, to the tune of $ 42 million over the next five year and reduction in the transmission of HIV/AIDS.  HIV prevention advocates have pointed out that "mass imprisonment is fueling the spread of HIV in this country. Obama's new National HIV/AIDS Strategy also notes the links between imprisonment and HIV." 

Civil rights advocates note that some racial sentencing disparities persist in the new legislation but see it as an important step in the right direction.

Photo: (blmurch/CC)

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