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March 11, 2010

Senate Committee Approves Decrease in Crack Cocaine Penalties

Legislation to ease the harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses passed unanimously out of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary.  The Fair Sentencing Act of 2009 would address the controversial 100 to 1 sentencing quantity disparity between crack and powder cocaine by increasing the amount of crack cocaine necessary to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence but still maintain a disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine offenses.

The Senate bill approved today would reduce the cocaine sentencing disparity from its current 100 to 1 quantity ratio to a level of 18 to 1. Under current law, selling 500 grams of powder cocaine subjects defendants to a mandatory 5-year prison term, whereas even possessing as little as 5 grams of crack cocaine subjects defendants to the same penalty.  Today’s legislation raises the trigger amount of crack cocaine for the 5-year mandatory minimum from 5 grams to 28 grams and the trigger for a 10-year mandatory minimum from 50 grams to 280 grams.

The Sentencing Project has long advocated for the elimination of the cocaine disparity, both to better target law enforcement resources and to reduce unwarranted racial disparities. For the first time since the sentencing law was enacted in 1986, the White House endorsed a similar approach last year.  In July, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2009, which would treat crack and powder cocaine the same.

When the law was enacted, lawmakers believed that crack cocaine was a substantially more addictive and dangerous drug than powder cocaine. Two decades of research and extensive analysis by scientists, academics and the U.S. Sentencing Commission now reveal that those assertions are not supported by sound evidence.  A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the physiological and psychoactive effects of crack and powder cocaine are similar.


read Washington Post article

Issue Area(s): Incarceration, Sentencing Policy, Racial Disparity, Drug Policy, Crack Reform