Skip to main content
Publications

Federal Crack Cocaine Sentencing

October 20, 2010
An assessment of the cocaine sentencing debate that explores the racial impact of the crack sentencing disparity, clarifies misconceptions regarding crack addiction, and outlines solutions to eliminate sentencing unfairness.
 

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.

 
Related Posts
publications
January 17, 2020

Top Trends in State Criminal Justice Reform, 2019

In recent years most states have enacted reforms designed to reduce the scale of incarceration and the impact of the collateral consequences of a felony conviction. This briefing paper describes key reforms that were prioritized in 2019.
news
State Advocacy News: Strategizing to End Life Imprisonment
December 23, 2019

State Advocacy News: Strategizing to End Life Imprisonment

As the movement to challenge mass incarceration evolves there is growing attention being given to the dramatic impact of life sentences on the prison population. In 2019 national and state groups worked to build the base of support for ending life imprisonment. State advocates and organizers facilitated connections through strategy sessions to support reform.