On August 3, 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, legislation that limits the stiff mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses that bipartisan leaders agree were overly harsh and unjust.
The new law significantly reduces the cocaine sentencing quantity disparity from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1 by raising the quantity of crack cocaine necessary to trigger the five- and ten-year mandatory minimum sentences first set in 1986. The legislation also eliminates the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine. The bill passed unanimously through the Senate and by voice vote with little opposition in the House.
The reform marks progress towards ensuring fairness and proportionality in federal sentencing in an arena where a mandatory minimum sentence has not been eliminated since the 1970s and bipartisan agreement to reduce penalties, particularly for drug offenses, is rare. As introduced, the Fair Sentencing Act’s provisions would have completely eliminated the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine and its impact in reducing racial disparity and growing federal incarceration rates would have been more dramatic. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of the bill resulted in the 18 to 1 compromise that ultimately passed the Congress. The new law does not allow for retroactive application, so persons currently incarcerated or awaiting sentencing for crack cocaine offenses committed before enactment will not benefit from the changes to the mandatory minimums.
While changes created by the Fair Sentencing Act are profound, the original concerns expressed by advocates regarding the excessiveness of punishments for relatively low-level crack cocaine offenses and the continued sentencing disparity between two forms of the same drug remain. Moreover, the significant racial disparity in federal prisons will continue. This briefing paper provides background on the cocaine sentencing debate, explores the racial impact of the crack sentencing disparity, and clarifies the misperceptions regarding crack addiction.
To read the briefing paper, download the PDF below.