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October 15, 2009

New Senate bill introduced to eliminate crack/powder federal sentencing disparity

As detailed in this new Washington Post article, which is headlined "Senate Bill Would Eliminate Cocaine Sentencing Disparity," Senator Richard Durbin is championing a new bill to eliminate the crack/powder sentencing disparity in federal law. Here are some of the basics:

The Senate's second-ranking Democrat introduced a bill Thursday that would eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine, an issue that has frustrated judges, civil rights advocates and drug reform proponents for more than two decades. Under current law, it takes 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack to trigger the same mandatory minimum sentence. Activists say that disparity disproportionately impacts African Americans.

"The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine has contributed to the imprisonment of African Americans at six times the rate of whites and to the United States' position as the world's leader in incarcerations," Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a statement. "It's time for us to act."

Durbin's bill would also increase the volume of crack cocaine required to trigger a mandatory prison term, as well as stiffen penalties for large-scale drug traffickers and violent criminals.  The Fair Sentencing Act is co-sponsored by Democrats including Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), Russell Feingold (Wis.), Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.)....

Some law enforcement officials have advocated eliminating the disparity by increasing the penalties for possession of powder cocaine, rather than, as Durbin's bill does, lowering the sentence for crack.  But those calling for a change in the law also cite economic reasons at a time when budgets are tight, noting that half of federal inmates are imprisoned for drug offenses. The U.S. Sentencing Commission has estimated that wiping away the sentencing disparity could save more than $510 million over 15 years, lawmakers said....

A companion bill in the House has passed the House Judiciary Committee and awaits action in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  The idea won support from President Obama and Vice President Biden on the campaign trail, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has also been supportive, but the administration has yet to announce a formal position on the bills before Congress.

I am pleased to hear this news, but I will not start getting too excited about this bill unless and until some some Republican Senators get behind it or until at least the White House and the Attorney General start expressing support.  In other words, I fear it is going to take a lot more than the usual political suspects to turn these kinds of (long-overdue) proposed reforms into a legal reality.

October 15, 2009 at 03:49 PM | Permalink

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Comments

It would be nice if WaPo's coverage could note the disproportionate victimization caused by these criminals and what demographics would likely suffer with increased lenience.

As for cost savings, you'd also have to factor in the increased costs of the crimes committed by these people who, absent the change in the law, would not be incarcerated. I'm betting that a good chunk of that half a Bill would be lost.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 15, 2009 5:08:55 PM

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