Senate Passes Crack-Cocaine Sentencing Bill
By Christopher M. Matthews | March 17, 2010 9:13 pm

The Senate passed legislation by voice vote Wednesday night to address the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

The Fair Sentencing Act would establish an 18-to-1 sentencing ratio for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The current decades-old sentencing law sets a 100-to-1 ratio, requiring the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the possession of five grams of crack cocaine as it does for the possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine.

“After more than 20 years, the Senate has finally acted on legislation to correct the crack-powder disparity and the harm to public confidence in our justice system it created,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a news release. “Although this bill is not perfect and it is not the bill we introduced in order to correct these inequalities, I believe the Fair Sentencing Act moves us one step closer to reaching the important goal of equal justice for all.”

According to the release, the bill also would refocus federal resources on large-scale, violent drug traffickers and increase the penalties for the worst drug offenders.

The measure, introduced last year by Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), unanimously was approved the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 11.

As originally introduced, the bill would have required the same sentencing guidelines for powder cocaine and crack offenses, establishing a 1-to-1 ratio. Democrats have argued the law tends to disproportionately target blacks because crack is typically used in poorer urban communities. After negotiations with Republicans, Democrats on the committee eventually agreed to the 18-to-1 ratio.

“I know this agreement is not everything we would like. Frankly, it is not everything that I would like either,” Durbin said at the committee markup. “But this is a historic day. The Senate Judiciary Committee has never reported a bill to reduce this crack-powder disparity.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions of (R-Ala.), the panel’s ranking minority member, said that the bill reported out of committee strikes the right balance in addressing concerns that the current sentencing guidelines unjustly targets blacks and the needs of law enforcement officials.

“Despite my belief that parity was the better policy, I have joined with Senator Durbin and support the progress represented by his compromise with Senator Sessions,” Leahy said in the release. “I urge the House to act quickly so that the President can sign this historic legislation into law.

The House Judiciary Committee approved its version of the legislation in July. Unlike the Senate bill, the House legislation eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine and crack offenses.

The Justice Department has expressed support efforts for eliminating the differences between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said at a House hearing in May that the current sentencing policies are “hard to justify.”

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