Congress Finally Cuts Crack-Powder Sentencing Disparity

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It took 25 years, but Congress gave final approval to a bill that would reduce the long-standing disparity between federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine distribution. The National Law Journal notes that debate on the issue has raged since the 1980s. Critics have assailed the distinction between crack and cocaine sentencing — 5 grams of crack triggers a mandatory sentence of five years while it takes 500 grams of cocaine to trigger the same sentence. The disparity has had a disproportionate impact on African-American men, critics say.

The 100-to-1 ratio would be reduced to 18-to-1 under the legislation, which raises the threshold to 28 grams of crack for a mandatory five-year sentence. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), supporters of the legislation and the top senators on the Judiciary Committee, praised the vote. “These disproportionate punishments have had a disparate impact on minority communities. This is unjust and runs contrary to our fundamental principles of equal justice under law,” Leahy said. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, dissented, saying the change “could expose our neighborhoods to the same violence and addiction that caused Congress to act in the first place.” Crack cocaine, he added, “is associated with a greater degree of violence than most other drugs.” The legislation eliminates the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack, raises the fines for major drug trafficking, and increases sentences for those who use violence while trafficking drugs.

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