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July 26, 2006

A Senate bill to reduce crack/powder disparity

The Washington Times is reporting this exciting news from the Senate:

A bipartisan group of four U.S. senators, all former state attorneys general, presented legislation yesterday to reduce the disparity in prison sentences for those caught with crack cocaine and those caught with powdered cocaine. That disparity in federal sentencing guidelines is currently 100-to-1. It would be reduced to 20-to-1 under a measure introduced yesterday by Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ken Salazar of Colorado.

The Drug Sentencing Reform Act of 2006 would reduce the disparity by decreasing the amount of crack cocaine necessary to trigger the mandatory minimum sentencing and introducing a "modest increase on powders," said Mr. Sessions, who presented a similar Senate bill in 2001.  Currently, possession of 500 grams of powdered cocaine results in a five-year mandatory minimum sentencing. It takes only 5 grams of crack cocaine to warrant a similar sentence. The senators propose shifting the sentencing amounts to 400 grams of powder and 20 grams of crack cocaine.

The bill would bring about "tougher sentences on the worst and most violent drug offenders and less severe sentences on lower-level, nonviolent offenders," said Mr. Sessions, adding that the measure would shift the emphasis in sentencing from drug quantity to the type of criminal act committed in distributing drugs. "This does not signal that we are going soft on crime," Mr. Sessions told reporters yesterday. He said that "much crime is driven by drug use," but that as a former federal prosecutor, he has "valid concerns in the disparity between crack and powder." Mr. Cornyn said his prior experience as attorney general of Texas showed him that "laws should be firm but fair. We not only need just laws, but they need the appearance and reality of fairness."

The crack/powder sentencing disparity -- which has resulted in higher incarceration rates for blacks convicted of drug crimes -- long has been targeted by groups such as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2000, more than 84 percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine distribution were black, while 9 percent were Hispanic and 5 percent were white. By contrast, 30 percent of those sentenced for powdered cocaine were black, 50 percent were Hispanic and 15 percent were white.

This local story from an Alabama paper on the bill provides some more perspectives on the issue.

Many critics of current federal sentencing laws are surely eager for drug sentencing reform that goes beyond this relatively minor tinkering in the cocaine area (such as the elimination of all statutory mandatory minimums).  However, just the introduction of this bill marks a significant step forward inthe crack/powder debate.  It would be especially exciting and valuable if the Senate were to hold hearings on this bill to give these issues a wider airing and if the US Sentencing Commission were to follow-up the introduction of this bill by (finally) doing something bold in this arena.

Some related posts:

UPDATE: The folks at FAMM has this reaction to the new bill.  Here is a snippet:

Instead of tinkering with drug weights, the senators should reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws so that drug weights alone don't determine sentence length. Sentences should be based on traditional factors such as culpability, role in the offense, and the use of weapons or violence. Congress needs to allow the Courts to consider all factors of the offense and the offender to insure a fair and proportionate sentencing system.

July 26, 2006 at 08:08 AM | Permalink

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» Crack vs Cocaine in the Senate from Objective Justice
I wrote quite some time ago about disproportionate sentencing between crack and cocaine, and today I see that the Senate has finally gotten involved. Interestingly they answered my question; ‘should we lower crack sentencing guidelines or increase coca... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 26, 2006 3:49:53 PM

Comments

Does the bill have a provision allowing prisoners to apply for a retroactive sentence revision?

Posted by: Peter G | Jul 26, 2006 10:59:49 PM

The Sessions bill explicitly states that it is not retroactive.
James Cho
Federal Policy Analyst
FAMM

Posted by: jcho | Aug 1, 2006 3:09:40 PM

NOT ONLY SHOULD CONGRESS AND SENATE REDUCE CRACK OR POWDER THEY SHOULD RECONSIDER REDUCING FELONIES WITH FIREARM IF THESE INMATES HAVENT KILLED OR BUGULARY AND WAS USING THE GUNS FOE HUNTING PURPOSE WHY GIVE A PERSON HARSH SENTENCE

Posted by: shermeker pollard | Feb 9, 2007 8:04:31 PM

My 47 yrs old son was sententenced to five yrs for pleading quilty to possosseion of drugs & distributing. He had 47 grams & two guns were found in the home. They were no hunting guns. he has 10 day to appeal his sentence. Are there any grounds for an appeal. He had no previous felonies.

Posted by: gary lewis | Apr 21, 2007 11:53:16 AM

My 47 yrs old son was sententenced to five yrs for pleading quilty to possosseion of drugs & distributing. He had 47 grams & two guns were found in the home. They were no hunting guns. he has 10 day to appeal his sentence. Are there any grounds for an appeal. He had no previous felonies.

Posted by: gary lewis | Apr 21, 2007 11:53:35 AM

Posted by: Alicia Olds | Aug 8, 2007 9:44:21 PM

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