Finally Cracking the Disparity: It's About Time!

Wednesday marked a historic moment: the House of Representatives did a markup of the long-awaited Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009 (H.R. 3245), sponsored by Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.). The ACLU has been pushing for this moment for the past 22 years. Why is this bill so significant?

Ever since the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, there has been a huge disparity between the sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine (different forms of the same drug). All it takes is for a person to have five grams of crack cocaine (little more than a packet of sugar) and they're guaranteed a minimum sentence of five years. But if a person has powder cocaine instead, things will look much, much brighter: it takes possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine to give a person the same exact five-year sentence. That's a ratio of 100-to-1 — a huge disparity that has fallen disproportionately on African-Americans. These are the kinds of laws that have caused the ranks of the incarcerated to swell to nearly 2.5 million, or one in every 100 adult Americans (PDF).

In the scheme of things, this may seem like an irrelevant point. What does it matter? People just shouldn't do cocaine, period. Or, crack addicts should simply use powder cocaine, right? Wrong. Crack arrestees are overwhelmingly black. More than 80 percent of the people prosecuted for crack possession are African-American, despite the fact that the majority of crack users are either white or Hispanic.

Although the original intent of the legislation was to simply "crack down" on crack cocaine use, it had the inadvertent effect of discriminating against African-Americans. Countless numbers of people like Kemba Smith have been given ridiculous, excessive prison sentences (24 1/2 years, in Smith's case) for their first nonviolent offences.

However, we may finally be at the end of this dark tunnel: with the passage of the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009, the disparity may finally be coming to an end. We commend Rep. Scott and his cosponsors for creating this long overdue bill and voting to finally eliminate the disparity. This is a very encouraging first step in reforming cocaine sentencing, and we are very excited to finally see it after 22 years. Take action and join us in urging Congress to pass this important crack cocaine bill. It's now up to Congress to keep the momentum going.

Add a comment (14)
Read the Terms of Use


I am so glad you got your sentencing changed. Now the families of addicts and sellers can certainly rest in their beds at night. And pray to God that they wake up the next morning.

Live the life it is not something I would wish for anyone.


This kind of nonsense is why the jury system can be so valuable.If jurys have the guts to refuse to convict the will change and victims like Kembe Smith would be saved.Prosecuters can claim that it's the duty of jurys to blindly follow the law but thats rubbish because jurys are the last line of defense against such tyranny.

Alvin McCuistion

This also brings up the ridiculous mandatory sentencing problem. A law like this removes sentencing from the judiciary where it belongs to the legislature where it doesn't. It prohibits the mingling of mercy with justice or prevents judges from considering special circumstances. Such a law should be unconstitutional on its face.


Dear Bleeding Heart Libs,
Cry me a freaking river. I work and I get drug tested and it is not a hardship to me so why should it be for drug dealers who are sitting on there behinds living off of the working class


Maggie - I agree. I would not want to live the life of an addict or be the member of an addict's family. The questions, however are (1) why don't we treat addiction like the disease it is and (2) how can we treat one group of addicts as criminals (crack addicts) more harshly than another group (powder cocaine addicts) and de-criminalize yet the behavior of groups of addicts (alcoholics, tobacco smokers, gamblers, etc)?


Roald, the answer to #1 is that people do not want these halfway houses etc in their neighborhoods. Hospitals, VA take them in to detox but that is all. The halfway houses help them to face their addictions and try to make them a part of the solution and not the problem. If these addicts/alcholics do not reach out to NA or AA they are destine to be lost. That is an unfortunate truth. Also State,Counties and VA are paying for this care. VA still pays but State and counties are cutting programs.

#2 Addicts/Acholics generally pay with jail time, restitution etc. Took the Courts and legislatures a long time to start punishing the Alcoholic. But it now happens more frequently and it should. Gamblers - mob takes care of them. The rest tobacco smokers, overeaters, junk eaters etc are habits that are hard to break. Don't know the answer to that one.


Dear right winger you might enjoy peeing into a bottle and living in a police state but some of us would prefer to be free.

Steve one who transports school-children for a living, would you prefer they test me to make sure I'm drug free, or ban drug-testing altogether and thus run the risk of children getting killed because I was intoxicated on drugs? The ones who are opposed to random drug-test are the ones who are doing illegal drugs. I hear all to often of bus-drivers who get into accidents because they board their buses under the influence. From what I read from the post on the far-left, I should have the constitutional right to drive my bus stoned....providing it is not one of your children who are killed.


Steve - once again you distort rather than clarify. There is no doubt that people whose impairment (by legal or illegal substances) would put the public at risk should be monitored. The question you do not answer is why use of one intoxicant is punished so differently than another.

Read some of Maggie's comments. She does not need to obfuscate to make her point.


Roald.....I was simply responding to another ones' comment. If you would like to know how I feel about this; if you use, you lose, regardless of the drug. I believe race has little to do with it. I recall former Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry was busted in a sting posessing crack. How much time did he get? It's who has the money, not their racial background. BTW, what is the ACLU's position on random drug-testing for someone in my profession?


Sign Up for Breaking News