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Crack and Cocaine Powder Sentencing Disparities

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Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009, a narrowly-tailored bill that would eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine and increase penalties for the worst offenders. This would restore fairness to our drug sentencing policy and focus limited federal resources on violent drug traffickers. It has been introduced to Congress to equalize the sentencing for crack and cocaine drug offenses. It started with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which at the time was designed to aggressively target the increase in crack cocaine crime. Under the law, those convicted of crimes involving “crack” cocaine were punished on a 100-to-1 ratio compared to those whose crimes involve cocaine in powder form. Thus, a person who dealt five grams of crack cocaine could face 5 years in prison, but person had to deal 500 grams of powder cocaine for a similar sentence. Worse, as the years went on, some reports indicated that first-time offenders caught selling five grams of powder cocaine typically only received 6 months in prison, and would often be eligible for probation, while first-time offender selling the same amount of crack faced the mandatory five year prison sentence. Another disparity was that the majority of dealers convicted for crack cocaine offenses were Black, while most convicted for powder cocaine offenses were White.

There are many policy reasons behind the push for the new law – primarily to address the racial disparities mentioned, but also to refocus law enforcement efforts on drug king-pins rather than street-level dealers. The crack-powder disparity disproportionately affects African Americans. While African Americans are less than 30 percent of crack users, they are 82 percent of those convicted of federal crack offenses. Law enforcement experts say that crack-powder disparity undermines trust in our criminal justice system, especially in minority communities. The bipartisan United States Sentencing Commission has said that fixing the crack-powder disparity “would dramatically improve the fairness of the federal sentencing system.” Under The Fair Sentencing Act, it would eliminate the crack-powder disparity and establish the same sentences for crack and powder cocaine, a 1:1 ratio. It would also eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine. The only mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of a drug would be by a first-time offender. And finally it would significantly increase penalties for drug offenses involving vulnerable victims, violence and other aggravating factors.


“The Fair Sentencing Act Corrects a Long-time Wrong in Cocaine Cases.” Editorial. The Washington Post 03 Aug. 2010. The Washington Post: National, World & D.C. Area News and Headlines – The Washington Post. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/02/AR2010080204360.html>.

“The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.” FAMM Home Page. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.famm.org/FederalSentencing/USCongress/BillsinCongress/TheFairSentencingActof2010.aspx>.

WashingtonWatch.com – P.L. 111-220, The Fair Sentencing Act of 2009.” WashingtonWatch.com, Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.washingtonwatch.com/bills/show/111_SN_1789.html#toc0>.

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