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Finally Cracking the Disparity: It's About Time!

Emily Zia,
Washington Legislative Office
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July 24, 2009

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.

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