Civil-rights groups oppose Sen. Jeff Sessions’s nomination as attorney general over his record on race, but they share what the Wall Street Journal calls a “a sliver of common ground” on one issue–federal cocaine sentences. Sessions was Congress’s most avid supporter of cutting the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, at a time when other lawmakers were loath to be seen as soft on crime. To Sessions’ critics, the issue doesn’t come close to compensating for his career-long opposition to expanding civil-rights protections and reducing mandatory sentences, and for what they see as an indifference to issues important to minorities.
Back in 2010, Republican Sessions and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois struck a deal to reduce, though not eliminate, the sentencing disparity. Sessions hung a copy of the legislation, signed by President Obama, in a prominent spot next to his desk. Before then, possession of five grams of crack earned a defendant a five-year sentence, while it took 500 grams of powder cocaine to get the same five-year penalty. Sessions told the Journal at the time that the crack penalties were unfair and made cities less safe, not more so. He cited studies showing that African Americans made up 84 percent of defendants sentenced for trafficking crack but only 31 percent of those sentenced for powder. It took many years for the Fair Sentencing Act to pass, but it finally raised the trigger for a five-year sentence to 28 grams of crack and the 10-year trigger to 280 grams of crack. The triggers for powder cocaine remained at 500 and 5,000 grams.