By Frank James
The Senate move to close the disparity between mandatory sentences for powder and crack cocaine was lauded by the nation's most important lawyers group, the American Bar Association.
Current federal mandatory sentencing guidelines require someone convicted of crack cocaine possession to receive the same prison sentence as someone with 100 times the amount of powder cocaine.
Those guidelines were seen as a way to combat the crack epidemic that ravaged many cities during the 1980s but resulted in African Americans getting much lengthier jail terms than whites convicted of possessing much greater amounts of powder cocaine.
The Senate voted Wednesday to move the ratio to 18-to-1 from 100-to-1.
ABA president Carolyn Lamm said in a statement:
The American Bar Association has long advocated the elimination of the cocaine sentencing disparity, both to allow law enforcement resources to remain focused on major drug offenders and to reduce unwarranted racial disparities. Yesterday the Senate unanimously approved legislation to improve fairness in federal sentencing for cocaine offenses. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2009 would reduce the controversial 100-to-1 sentencing quantity disparity between crack and powder cocaine by increasing the amount of crack cocaine necessary to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence, but still maintain a disparity between powder cocaine and crack cocaine offenses at a level of 18-to-1. This is not parity, but it is a major step towards responsible sentencing policy.
The unanimous Senate vote on this long-contentious issue represents a rare bipartisan achievement in the criminal justice reform area. Senators Durbin (D-IL) and Sessions (R-AL) led Senate efforts that resulted in an historic compromise on this legislation to ease the harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses. The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Senate Judiciary Chairman Leahy (D-VT), Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Senator Hatch (R-UT) and Senator Cardin (D-MD) each played important roles in moving this reform towards passage by the Senate. The ABA commends these Senate leaders for reaching common ground on this much-needed reform. We stand ready to take the next steps to improve fairness in federal sentencing.