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Another Huge Step Towards Cracking the Disparity

Emily Zia,
Washington Legislative Office
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July 31, 2009

Last week, we commended the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security for doing a markup of the long-awaited Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009 (H.R. 3245), sponsored by Rep. Robert Scott (D-Va.). This week, we have even more to cheer about: yesterday, the full House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the bill by a vote of 16-9. This landmark and historic committee vote clears the way for the bill, which will now head to the full House of Representatives for a final vote.

The Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009 seeks to eliminate the notorious disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, two different forms of the same drug. Possession of five grams of crack cocaine (roughly the size of a sugar packet, or two pennies) can lead to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. It takes possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine to yield the same minimum sentence — that’s 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine for the same sentence. A terrible side effect of this disparity is that over 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. Most of those prosecuted for crack receive excessive sentences (as much as 24 ½ years) for nonviolent first offenses. It’s simply not right.

Over the past couple of weeks, media coverage and public outrage over the 100-to-1 crack cocaine disparity has been growing rapidly, from both Democrats and Republicans alike. In a humorous moment, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) mentioned “doing that crack cocaine thing” with Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) at the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech last week, “We all know that this egregious difference in punishment is simply wrong.” And last Sunday, the Washington Post published a superb editorial that urged lawmakers to end the disparity and vote in favor of the bill.

It is clear that most people agree with us: after 23 years of this appalling disparity, it’s time to change the law and abolish the differences in crack and powder cocaine sentencing. The House Judiciary Committee’s vote has taken us one step closer to achieving this goal. Next, the bill will head to the House of Representatives for a full vote; we strongly urge the House to pass this bill. Join us and take action to urge Congress to pass the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. It is time to put an end to this unfortunate chapter in criminal justice history. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel — now, all Congress has to do is get us there.

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