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July 28, 2010

Historic Reform: Congress Lowers Penalties for Crack Cocaine

After decades of debate, research and recommendations, the United States Congress has approved legislation to increase fairness in sentences for crack cocaine offenses. The House of Representatives today passed, under a suspension of the rules, a bill passed by the Senate in March which would reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The bill now awaits the President's signature.

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 would raise the minimum quantity of crack cocaine that triggers a 5-year mandatory minimum from 5 grams to 28 grams, and from 50 grams to 280 grams to trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence. The amount of powder cocaine required to trigger the 5 and 10-year mandatory minimums remains the same, at 500 grams and 5 kilograms respectively.  The legislation also eliminates the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine. The quantity disparity between crack and powder cocaine would move from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1.

The Sentencing Project has long advocated for the complete elimination of the sentencing disparity that has doled out excessive and harsh penalties, and created unwarranted racial disparity in federal prisons. Currently, 80% of crack cocaine defendants are African American, and possession of as little as 5 grams of crack cocaine subject defendants to a mandatory five-year prison term. For decades the controversial cocaine sentencing law has exemplified the disparate treatment felt in communities of color and the harshness of mandatory minimum sentences.

According to estimates from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the approved changes to the current penalties for crack cocaine offenses could impact nearly 3,000 defendants a year by reducing their average sentence 27 months. The Commission projects that 10 years after enactment the changes could produce a prison population reduction of about 3,800.

For people currently serving time for low-level crack cocaine offenses, the bill's passage will not impact their fate.  The Sentencing Project urges Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the President to apply the sentencing adjustments mandated in the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively.

read the sentencing project's federal crack cocaine sentencing briefing sheet

read miami herald article

read los angeles times article

read wall street journal article

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