It’s called the Fair Sentencing Act, and it would have eliminated what has been a decades-long vast disparity in how those convicted of crack cocaine offenses receive punishments much more harsh than those convicted of powder cocaine crimes.
Now, perhaps, it ought to be more honestly renamed the “Not So Unfair Sentencing Act,” or the “Still Unfair, But Not As Bad Sentencing Act,” since the Democrats had to accommodate a compromise with Republicans that still makes crack cocaine sentencing worse than comparable powder cocaine prison terms — just less so.
The compromise legislation, unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday by a vote of 19-0, would cut the ratio of disparity from 100:1, down to roughly 20:1.
The original legislation, authored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), was amended by the Judiciary Committee.
Current law sets out a ratio of 100:1 in terms of the amount of powder cocaine and the amount of crack cocaine that result in the same sentence. The Fair Sentencing Act, as introduced, would have provided equal treatment under law, creating a 1:1 ratio. The compromise amendment adopted by the committee on Thursday would establish the ratio at 18:1.
“I strongly support the 1:1 ratio in Senator Durbin’s original bill, and I believe that comprehensive change would truly restore a sense of justice to federal drug enforcement and help to restore faith in the system in many communities where that faith has been lost,” says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the judiciary panel. “At the same time, Congress has waited more than 20 years to fix this problem. While we fail to act, thousands of men and women serve in prison for years and years, while those who are more privileged serve much shorter sentences for essentially the same crime. This is unfair, and we need to fix it now.”
The compromise approved by the Judiciary Committee would increase the quantity thresholds for mandatory minimum sentences for possession of crack cocaine by 560 percent: from 5 grams to 28 grams (approximately one ounce, a common quantity in distribution cases) for cases subject to a five-year mandatory sentence, and from 50 grams to 280 grams for cases subject to a 10-year mandatory sentence. Simple possession of crack would no longer be subject to a mandatory prison term, bringing the treatment of crack in line with that of other narcotics.
Commenting on the disparity that would remain under the new legislation, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a former Judiciary Committee chairman, says, “I’m proud to have been a part in a bipartisan effort to end the federal sentencing disparity for crack cocaine. The 20-to-1 ratio that was agreed to today is a fair and balanced way of tackling this dangerous drug without sacrificing law enforcement’s efforts. This approach was put forward by President Reagan in 1986 when crack decimated communities across the country. I’m pleased the Judiciary Committee has taken action today.”
At the time, Biden admitted he had been one of the lawmakers who had made a mistake in 1986 when Congress first created the more-harsh treatment for crack cocaine crimes. At that hearing, Biden cited erroneous information and hysteria over crack cocaine use as prompting the sentencing differential.
“The current disparity in cocaine sentencing simply cannot be justified based on the facts as we know them today,” Biden says in the opening statement he delivered in 2008.
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.