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Breakthrough in U.S. Drug Sentencing Reform: The Fair Sentencing Act and the Unfinished Reform Agenda

November 18, 2011
This article analyzes the 2010 crack cocaine sentencing reform and the factors that contributed to the law’s overwhelming bipartisan support. It also highlights the need to push a more aggressive federal agenda to reduce incarceration levels and racial disparity while providing a more humane system of justice.

In August 2010 U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, legislation that limits the harsh punishments that were enacted during the 1980s for low-level crack cocaine offenses. At the Oval Office signing ceremony Obama was joined by Democratic and Republican congressional leaders who had championed reform.

That day the President’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, told a reporter, “I think if you look at the people that were there at that signing, they’re not of the political persuasions that either always or even part of the time agree. I think that demonstrates … the glaring nature of what these penalties had … done to people and how unfair they were.”

Gibbs was referring to the five- and ten-year mandatory minimum sentences prescribed under federal law for defendants caught in possession for personal use or with the intent to sell as little as five grams of crack cocaine. The drug penalties were the harshest ever adopted by Congress and were set at the height of the nation’s “war on drugs,” a time of significant concern — and misunderstanding — about crack cocaine.

The Fair Sentencing Act was welcomed by civil rights and community activists, but the compromise measure fell short of the changes they had sought for two decades. The new law reduces but does not eliminate a sentencing disparity that disproportionately impacts African Americans and entangles too many low-level drug offenders in the federal criminal justice system.

This article was published by the Washington Office on Latin America. To read the article, download the PDF below.

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