Friday, July 30, 2010

Congress votes to reduce the Crack/Powder sentencing disparity but the fight is not finished...


On Wednesday, July 28, 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by a unanimous voice vote, S. 1789, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2009 which would reduce the mandatory minimum sentence for a federal conviction of crack cocaine possession from 100 times that of people convicted of carrying the drug in powdered form to 18 times the sentence. This compromise legislation passed the United States Senate late in the evening of Wednesday, March 17, 2010, by unanimous consent (without a recorded vote); it will now go to President Obama for his signature.

While the NAACP supports this legislation as an important first step toward completely eliminating this racially discriminatory sentencing disparity, we will continue to push for complete elimination of the disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.

Everyone seems to agree that crack cocaine use is higher among Caucasians than any other group: most authorities estimate that more than 66% of those who use crack cocaine are white. Yet in 2006, 82% of those convicted and sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws were African American. When you add in Hispanics, the percentage climbs to above 96%. Since enactment of this law, over 23 years ago, the 100 to 1 ratio has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on the African American and Hispanic communities. Because of the mandatory minimum jail sentence for those convicted of possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine or more, people of color are being put in prisons at much higher rates than their Caucasian counterparts, and the judges have no discretion to mitigate the sentence for first-time or nonviolent offenders or special circumstances.

While drug use rates are similar among all racial groups, African American drug offenders have a twenty percent greater likelihood of receiving a prison sentence than their white counterparts and African Americans now serve virtually as much time in prison for drug offenses as whites serve for violent offenses.
~ Stanford Law School Report

It is estimated that if passed as written, the legislation reducing the sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1 will result in 4,000 fewer Americans being in jail in 10 years.

President Obama is expected to sign the legislation, having expressed opposition to disparity in the past.

Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) hailed the law. "Although the majority of crack offenders are white, 80 percent of convictions fall on the shoulders of African Americans. A law that reflects such a high degree of discriminatory application needs to be fixed," he said after the vote. "This is not to say the crack cocaine is not harmful and destructive in our neighborhoods and communities. It is, and S. 1789 includes increased criminal penalties for serious drug offenders. Furthermore, this legislation does not sacrifice our law enforcement capability; it simply recalibrates the exaggerated sentencing guideline to better reflect the relative harmfulness of crack and powder cocaine."

Other members of the Congressional Black Caucus said that it was a step in the right direction, but that more needs to be done. "I would have hoped that it would have gone further. But we'll take this for the moment. I mean it's movement. We're headed in the right direction," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.).

"We always know that we have work to do," said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), "but the fact is that we have done something now that we never have been able to achieve before -- to close that disparity gap, which is really important to all our communities... This is a big deal."

This is a huge victory for the NAACP; as an elimination of the sentencing disparity has been a priority for us for a long time. In addition to working independently and in coalition in favor of eliminating this particular mandatory minimum sentence, the NAACP has testified before Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Commission on this issue on many occasions. And we will continue to work on this issue until the sentencing disparity has been completely eliminated.

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