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Now is the Time to Crack the Disparity Once and For All!

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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November 13, 2008

As President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden prepare to assume their new roles — and the 111th Congress, with its strengthened majorities in both the House and the Senate for Democrats, gears up to tackle the many pressing problems confronting our country — advocates who have been pushing for years to eliminate the infamous 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine are energized and excited about the prospects of finally correcting this shameful stain on our criminal justice system.

For those who may not be familiar with this issue, current federal sentencing law punishes crack cocaine offenders far more severely for simple possession than any other drug offenders, for the same offense. Possessing or dealing five grams of crack cocaine results in the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as dealing 500 grams of powder cocaine.This counterproductive policy subjects low-level and non-violent participants to the same or harsher sentences as high-level traffickers and violent criminals. It has also had a particularly devastating impact on African American and low-income communities, while diverting precious federal resources from addressing the root causes of drug abuse and addiction.

The ACLU, along with a coalition of criminal justice and drug policy reform organizations held a lobby day this past February to support efforts in Congress to finally bring some fairness to this issue by eliminating the disparity between crack and powder cocaine entirely. (A video of that day’s events can be found here.)

Imagine my excitement reading the Obama/Biden transition agenda’s civil rights section to discover the incoming-administration’s support for ending the disparity. If that wasn’t enough to get me geared up, I was further energized when reading two CQ (that’s Congressional Quarterly for those outside-the-beltway readers) articles earlier this week by Keith Perine and Seth Stern that stated that the House and Senate Judiciary Committees are both likely to address the sentencing disparity during the 111th Congress. Keith wrote of the Senate Judiciary Committee:

There also is bipartisan sentiment on the panel for reducing, if not eliminating, the current 100-to-1 disparity in the amount of powdered and crack cocaine that triggers mandatory minimum prison sentences. The issue is of particular interest to Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., the vice president-elect, who introduced legislation (S. 1711) in the 110th Congress to equalize sentences for cocaine offenses.

Having a vice president who previously championed legislation in Congress to end the disparity will hopefully help to elevate this issue in the new administration.

As you can see, there is much to be hopeful about. However, as with all civil rights and social justice struggles, action will ultimately happen because activists (like the over 500,000 strong in the ACLU) demand it. Are you ready? I know I am. It’s time to crack this discriminatory disparity once and for all!

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