Pubdate: Fri, 16 Oct 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A06
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Author: Carrie Johnson, Washington Post Staff Writer
Referenced: Senate Bill 1789
Cited: Families Against Mandatory Minimums
Cited: Drug Policy Alliance Network


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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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake