« "How Young Is Too Young to Face Life in Prison?" | Main | Spot-on commentary at C&C about legislative action on the death penalty »

March 11, 2010

Unanimous(!!) vote by Senate Judiciary Committee to reduce (but not eliminate) crack/powder disparity

As detailed in this new press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, this morning "the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill that would reduce the sentencing disparity between federal crack and powder cocaine offenses."   Here are the basic details, with a pitch-perfect first-cut reaction from the head of FAMM:

The bipartisan vote to approve an amended version of Senator Richard Durbin’s (D-Ill.) bill, S. 1789, acknowledging that disparate sentencing policies enacted for federal crack cocaine offenses in 1986 have had a negative impact on the nation’s criminal justice system.

The amended bill would reduce the ratio between crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 20:1 and direct the U.S. Sentencing Commission to enhance penalties for aggravating factors like violence or bribery of a law enforcement officer. Significantly, the bill also would eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack.

“This is an exciting vote, but also disappointing.  We hoped the Committee would go further in making crack penalties the same as powder.  There was no scientific basis for the 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine created 24 years ago, and there is no scientific basis for today’s vote of 20:1 ,” said FAMM President Julie Stewart. “However, if this imperfect bill becomes law, it will provide some long-overdue relief to thousands of defendants sentenced each year.

With regard to the bill’s provision that would eliminate the mandatory sentence for simple possession of crack, Ms. Stewart stated, “If enacted, this legislation would repeal a mandatory minimum law for the first time since the Nixon administration.”

Under the Senate’s proposed 20:1 ratio, a conviction for 28 grams of crack cocaine will trigger a five year prison sentence and for 280 grams of crack a 10 year sentence. The 20:1 ratio could affect an estimated 3,100 cases annually, reducing sentences by an average of about 30 months. The bill would not, however, reduce sentences for those currently incarcerated for crack offenses. Impact of the amendment’s other provisions has not yet been calculated.

Especially at a time when getting agreement on anything in Washington DC seems like a pipe-dream, the fact that the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to reduce crack sentences is a remarkable and very important development (and turning point?) in the ever dynamic story of modern federal sentencing. 

Especially given that the full Senate and the House still has to accept this imperfect "solution" to the crack/powder problem, I am not yet prepared to count any sentencing reform chickens.  But the fact the unanimous vote suggests that lots of important folks have already bought into this particular solution.  Thus, I think there is now a real chance that 2010 will finally be the year we get some change to the notorious 100:1 ratio in crack/powder mandatory minimums.

March 11, 2010 at 12:46 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Unanimous(!!) vote by Senate Judiciary Committee to reduce (but not eliminate) crack/powder disparity:


I am a 2L at the University of Alabama School of Law.

Anyhow, I wanted to point you toward a comment that I saw at the Atlantic on this. Ta-Nehisi Coates stated: the law is now "one-fifth as racist as it used to be." http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/03/-one-fifth-as-racist-as-it-used-to-be/37384/

I guess it is a start, but still - 20:1 is ridiculous. The fact that it went from uber-ridiculous to far less ridiculous, but still ridiculous, in a unanimous vote makes me more disappointed than anything else.

Posted by: KS | Mar 14, 2010 2:48:37 PM

i am a person thats been sentenced mar 30th to ten years mandatory minnimum for 15.2 grams ok crack. yes this is to harsh of a sentence by the courts in ohio. in frustrated i have 2 leave my family for a long time i havent committed any terrible crime yes it was wrong for being involved in the drugs. but 10 years and in 38 .marlon d shepherd

Posted by: marlon d shepherd | Apr 2, 2010 9:25:51 PM

Very Interesting! Great Job!

Posted by: הרחקת יונים | Jan 6, 2011 6:54:20 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB