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Bill Targets Sentencing Rules For Crack and Powder Cocaine

By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

The Senate's second-ranking Democrat introduced a bill Thursday that would eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine, an issue that has frustrated judges, civil rights advocates and drug reform proponents for more than two decades.

Under current law, it takes 100 times as much powdered cocaine as crack to trigger the same mandatory minimum sentence. Activists say that disparity disproportionately impacts African Americans.

"The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine has contributed to the imprisonment of African Americans at six times the rate of whites and to the United States' position as the world's leader in incarcerations," Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a statement. "It's time for us to act."

Durbin's bill would also increase the quantity of crack cocaine required to trigger a mandatory prison term, as well as stiffen penalties for large-scale drug traffickers and violent criminals.

Some law enforcement officials have advocated eliminating the disparity by increasing the penalties for possession of powder cocaine, rather than, as Durbin's bill does, reducing the sentence for crack.

But those calling for a change in the law also cite economic reasons at a time when budgets are tight, noting that half of all federal inmates are imprisoned for drug offenses.

Today's sentencing ratio has been in place since 1986, a time when crack cocaine was ravaging inner-city neighborhoods. Academic research has since cast doubt on the assertion that rock cocaine is more addictive and dangerous than the powder.

Durbin's bill, the Fair Sentencing Act, is co-sponsored by Democrats including Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), Russell Feingold (Wis.), Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.). "To have faith in our system, Americans must have confidence that the laws of this country, including drug laws, are administered fairly," Leahy said in a statement.

A related bill is moving through the House of Representatives and has already passed one committee, which led Julie Stewart, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, to assert Thursday that "no institution stands in the way of crack cocaine changes. Every piece is in place to make this decades-past-due reform a reality."

Jasmine L. Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, urged Congress to move quickly, saying "23 years is too long to wait for justice to be served."

The idea won support from President Obama and Vice President Biden on the campaign trail, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has also been supportive, but the administration has not announced a formal position on the bills before Congress.

In an interview, Durbin said he was working to enlist Republican co-sponsors who could help ease his measure's progress through a divided Senate with a full agenda. He added that he "couldn't ask for better support" from Holder and other administration officials.

Congress must decide whether to make the sentencing change retroactive; doing so could present logistical hurdles for the Justice Department and the court system. Durbin said he hopes to leave that debate in the hands of the Sentencing Commission, which has already addressed similar issues.

James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police in Washington, said Thursday he was still digesting the Durbin bill. In the past, his members had taken the position that "the best way to eliminate the disparity would be to raise the penalties for powder to those of crack." But Pasco said his organization had developed a good relationship with the Judiciary Committee and that he would "look forward to the process" in Congress.

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