U.S. Senate Passes Historic Legislation to Address Crack / Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity


Late in the evening of Wednesday, March 17, 2010, the United States Senate passed, by unanimous consent (without a recorded vote), S. 1789, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009. Thiscompromise legislation reduces the mandatory minimum sentence for a federal conviction of crack cocaine possession from 100 times that of people convicted of carrying the drug in powdered form to 18 times the sentence. This bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a bipartisan, unanimous vote of 19 - 0 on Thursday, March 11, 2010, paving the way for passage by the full Senate.

The NAACP appreciates all of the hard work that has gone into this legislation, as well as the fact that it is the first time Congress has moved to reduce any mandatory minimum sentence. The NAACP also recognizes and appreciates that everyone involved in the negotiations seems to agree that the current 100:1 sentencing disparity has had a hugely unfair and discriminatory impact on African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities. The NAACP will continue, however, to push for complete parity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.

Currently, as a result of 1986 federal law, there is a huge (100 to 1) disparity between the penalty for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Specifically, a person must possess 500 grams of powder cocaine before they are subject to the same mandatory prison sentence (5 years) as an individual who is convicted of possessing just 5 grams of crack cocaine (despite the fact that pharmacologically, these two drugs are identical). At the time this law was passed, crack cocaine was a fairly new drug and there were concerns (which have subsequently been disproven) that crack is much more addictive, and leads to more violence, than powder cocaine. One of the effects of this law is that small-scale crack cocaine users are punished much more severely than powder cocaine users, their suppliers and distributors.

Everyone seems to agree that crack cocaine use is higher among Caucasians than any other group: most authorities estimate that more than 66% of those who use crack cocaine are white. Yet in 2006, 82% of those convicted and sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were African American. When you add in Hispanics, the percentage climbs to above 96%. Since enactment of this law, the 100 to 1 ratio has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the African American and Hispanic communities. Because of the mandatory minimum jail sentence for those convicted of possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine or more, people of color are being put in prisons at much higher rates than their Caucasian counterparts, and the judges have no discretion to mitigate the sentence for first-time or nonviolent offenders or special circumstances.

It is estimated that if passed as written, the legislation reducing the sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:11 will result in 4,000 fewer Americans being in jail in 10 years. WE MUST NOW ENCOURAGE THE US HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES TO ACT AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE TO ADDRESS THIS GROSS SENTENCING INJUSTICE.