This week Congress passed a bill to address disparities in sentencing based on crack and powder cocaine possession. The House passed the legislation under suspension rules after it was passed by the Senate in March. The bill, the Fair Sentencing Act (S. 1789), will now go to the president, who is to expected to sign it into law.
The new law modifies the 25-year-old statue that has been employed to send thousands of African Americans to prison for crack cocaine convictions while giving lesser sentences to whites arrested with the same amount of cocaine in powder form.
Provisions of the modified law include reducing “the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1, with a five-year mandatory minimum for 28 grams of crack cocaine and a five-year mandatory minimum for 500 grams of powder cocaine.” In addition, it “eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.” In the original law penned in 1986, crack was the only drug that had a mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession.
The new bill, which is authored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin and co-sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and ranking member Jeff Sessions, still is unfair, and represents a compromise made with Republican Senate Judiciary Committee members who objected to equitable sentences for the drugs.
Originally, it was introduced to completely eliminate the discriminatory 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing under federal law. The fact remains that it does not obviate the proven disproportionate impact such sentencing has on African Americans when compared to whites, nor does it remedy the many who are currently serving sentences under the old law.
Unfortunately, this law on paper may be seen as a move in the right direction but it still will result in disparities in incarceration rates for Africa Americans when compared to whites. Based on 2009 data, although African Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population and 14 percent of monthly drug users, they are 37 percent of the people arrested for drug offenses. Moreover, according to Human Rights Watch, across the nation, African Americans are arrested for drug offenses at rates 2 to 11 times higher than the rate for whites. – torrance stephens, ph.d.