Legislation approved by the Senate on Wednesday would significantly reduce the disparity in sentences handed out to those convicted of crack and powder cocaine.
Currently, a person convicted of crack cocaine possession gets the same mandatory jail time as someone with 100 times the same quantity of powder cocaine. That 100-1 ratio has been particularly hard on the black community, where convictions on federal crack laws are more prevalent.
Under the measure, approved by a voice vote, the ratio would be reduced to 18-1.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who worked out the legislation with Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans, said he had initially wanted a straight 1-to-1 ratio, but that the final product was a good bipartisan compromise.
"If this bill is enacted into law, it will immediately ensure that every year, thousands of people are treated more fairly in our criminal justice system," he said.
He said the bill also would mark the first time since 1970 that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence.
Under current law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine triggers a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence. The same mandatory sentence is handed down to a person convicted of trafficking 500 grams of powder cocaine.
Durbin said that in 1986, when he was a member of the House, he supported creation of this 100-1 ratio. "Crack cocaine had just appeared on the scene, and it scared us because it was cheap, addictive. We thought it was more dangerous than many narcotics."
But he cited figures saying that while blacks make up 30 percent of crack users, they comprise more than 80 percent of those convicted of federal crack offenses. "Law enforcement experts say that the crack-powder disparity undermines trust in the criminal justice system, especially in the African-American community."
Attorney General Eric Holder praised the Senate Judiciary Committee's approval of the bill last week. "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."
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said his group had been working two decades to eliminate the sentencing disparity and was disappointed that was not accomplished in the bill. He said the bill "represents progress but not the end of the fight."
The Drug Policy Alliance also found the bill to be lacking for the same reason.
"Today is a bittersweet day," said Jasmine L. Tyler of the Drug Policy Alliance. By not eliminating the disparity, Tyler said in a statement, the Senate "has proven how difficult it is to ensure racial justice, even in 2010."
Under the bill, possession of 28 grams of crack would trigger the five-year mandatory sentence. The measure also increases fines for drug traffickers.
A companion bill is pending in the House.
The bill is S. 1789.
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