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Coburn: An Ally on Crack?

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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February 26, 2010

Imagine my surprise when flipping through The New York Times to have read a positive statement from Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in regards to the infamous and discriminatory sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

In an article largely focused on the “bad chemistry” between congressional Republicans and President Obama, Mark Leibovich closes the piece describing, almost as an afterthought, a very interesting call from the President to Sen. Coburn earlier this month. The apparent purpose of President Obama’s call was to encourage Sen. Coburn, without question one of the most conservative members of Congress, to work with colleagues in the Senate who are trying to move a bill aimed at eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine through the Judiciary Committee.

In response, Sen. Coburn told Leibovich, and presumably President Obama: “We’re going to get this done.”

To say that Sen. Coburn’s words are a momentum booster is an understatement. By way of background, more than two decades ago, based on assumptions about crack which are now known to be false, heightened penalties for crack cocaine offenses were adopted into federal law. Sentences for crack offenses are currently equivalent to the sentences for 100 times the amount of powder cocaine, and the impact has fallen disproportionately, and with devastating force, on African-Americans.

The Obama administration, to its credit, has consistently stated support for completely eliminating the 100-to-1 cocaine sentencing disparity, and to now have one of the most conservative members of Congress saying that we’re going to see legislation passed is indeed momentum-building and provides this Washington cynic with some much-needed hope.

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