Senate drug sentencing bill reduces disparities, not far enough

The Senate, by voice vote March 17, passed legislation that would reduce the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity. Currently the differential is 100 to one. In other words, a person caught with crack will get a sentence 100 times harsher than a person convicted of cocaine possession. The Senate bill would reduce the ratio to 18 to one. The House of Representatives has passed a companion bill that eliminate the sentencing disparity making it one to one.

Patrick Leahy, Senate Judiciary Committee chair, said in a statement, “The racial imbalance that has resulted from the cocaine sentencing disparity disparages the Constitution’s promise of equal treatment for all Americans.”

The Senate vote was the product of a bipartisan deal and has been hailed by the White House and Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder said, “There is no law enforcement or sentencing rational for the current disparity between crack and cocaine powder offenses, and I have strongly supported eliminating it to ensure our sentencing laws are tough, predictable and fair.”

Importantly the Senate backed measure eliminates mandatory minimums for crack possession.

Civil rights and drug advocacy groups, however, are critical of the Senate’s stance. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights cited momentum, but took note of the bill’s inadequacy. Wade Henderson said the vote “represents progress, but not the end of the fight.”

The Drug Policy Alliance, a group that promotes policy alternatives to the drug war, pointedly criticized the Senate action. “Today is a bittersweet day,” said Jasmine L. Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance to the Associated Press. By not eliminating the disparity, Tyler said, the Senate “has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010.”

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund also took aim at the continuing disparity. “Although the Senate passed legislation concerning the crack/powder sentencing disparity, it refused to completely eliminate that unjustified disparity.  The Senate’s failure is deeply troubling.  If left uncorrected, the Senate’s action would mean that racial discrimination will persist.” voiced similar concerns. “Last week, the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had a chance to advance a bill to eliminate the disparity. Instead, they chose to reduce it-with no good reason other than to please ‘moderate’ Democrats and Republicans. And President Obama, who for years has championed ending the disparity, is supporting the bill – apparently because it’s bipartisan,” the Internet-based organization said in an e-mail.

They are asking President Obama and House Speaker Pelosi to support the House version of the bill. To support this effort click here. 

The crack cocaine sentencing laws passed in the 1980s are a big reason why one in 15 African Americans are behind bars today. The crack/cocaine epidemic emerged partly out efforts by the Reagan administration to fund the Central American contra war against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. As reported over 20 years ago by the San Jose Mercury News, money from contra drug sales were used to purchase weapons. The cocaine then made its way to crack labs in Los Angeles and across the country.

The House and Senate bills will now have to be reconciled.

Photo: / CC BY 2.0






Joe Sims
Joe Sims

Joe Sims is co-chair of the Communist Party USA. He is also a senior editor of People's World and loves biking.