Advocates Stand Together for Fairness in Federal Sentencing

February 26, 2008 12:00 am

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Washington, DC – On Tuesday, February 26, activists from around the country, civil rights and professional organizations stood together to call for much-needed reform to the country’s federal sentencing laws. This press briefing and lobby event marked the culmination of a month-long series of events aimed at addressing the 20-year-old sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. According to current guidelines, a conviction for the sale of 500 grams of powder cocaine results in a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence, while the same penalty is triggered for sale or possession of only 5 grams of crack cocaine.

“This 100:1 disparity in the mandatory minimum sentences for powder versus crack cocaine is not only patently unjust, it is unwarranted by the facts,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “In the two decades since it was enacted, experts from the medical, scientific, and criminal justice communities have all testified that there is no basis for the sentencing disparity. It has been too long already; 2008 is the year Congress must act to repair this injustice.”

Jesselyn McCurdy, ACLU Legislative Counsel said: “When these mandatory minimums were written into law in 1986, crack had recently emerged as an urban boogeyman, about which there was no end of myths and exaggerations. It, and its users, were demonized. Twenty years later, we know that crack has the same effects on the body as powder cocaine. Now that we know better, we need to do better. We urge Congress to return to the original intent of the law – prosecuting high-level drug traffickers or leaders in the drug trade, rather than non-violent, low-level offenders.”

Even the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), on four separate occasions, has recommended that changes be made to the crack/powder sentencing structures, finding no medical or legal basis for the sentencing disparity. The USSC has repeatedly recommended that the sentencing disparities be lessened or eliminated completely, citing in part the devastating effect such disparities have had on African-American communities, and the perception that the criminal justice system treats African-Americans unfairly.

Congress is currently considering several bills aimed at fixing this injustice. A hearing titled “Federal Cocaine Sentencing Laws: Reforming the 100-to-1 Crack/Powder Disparity” was held February 12 in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs, and a similar hearing will be held in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on Tuesday, February 26.

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