President Barack Obama signed the crack-cocaine sentencing bill into law Tuesday, reducing the disparity in mandatory minimum sentences between offenses for crack and powder cocaine.
For nearly two decades, individuals convicted of crack offenses faced far harsher penalties than defendants convicted of similar offenses involving cocaine powder — a disparity of roughly 100 to 1. A person in possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine would face a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. Crack offenders would face the same penalty for a mere 5 grams.
The Fair Sentencing Act signed Tuesday reduces the sentencing disparity to 18 to 1, meaning that a person convicted of selling 28 grams of crack would face the same five-year mandatory minimum as someone with 500 grams of cocaine. The law also eliminates mandatory minimum sentencing for simply possessing the drug.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) first introduced the legislation last October that would have eliminated the disparity altogether. Republicans refused to support that legislation, leading Durbin and Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama to craft a compromises that reduced the disparity to the 18-to-1 ratio. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) pushed for the House to approve the bill, which it did last week by voice vote.
Some have criticized the law for the preserving a sentence disparity between the drugs, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit organization that advocates for state and federal sentencing reform.
“For years the sentences were widely understood to be flawed and illogical, created in the heat of the drug war without any scientific basis for their severity,” FAMM President Julie Stewart said in a news release. “Hopefully, this victory signals the beginning of new bipartisanship that will lead to even more commonsense sentencing reforms.”
Stewart said the organization will push for the law to be applied retroactively to individuals already serving sentences for crack violations.
“Congress needs to show them the same compassion, fairness, and justice that the new law will provide to those entering the prison system,” Stewart said.
According to U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics, between 5,500 and 6,000 offenders are sentenced for crack offenses each year. The law will reduce by up to 27 months sentences for about 3,000 offenders each year, according to FAMM.