October 15, 2009

CARDIN SPONSORS BILL TO ELIMINATE SENTENCING DISPARITY BETWEEN CRACK AND POWDER COCAINE

Washington, DC - U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today joined Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Crime and Drugs Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter (D-PA), and six other Senators, introducing legislation to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The bill, the Fair Sentencing Act , would refocus scarce federal resources toward large scale, violent traffickers and increase penalties for the worst drug offenders. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, restoring sentencing parity would do more than any other policy change to close the gap in incarceration rates between African Americans and whites. Senator Cardin has worked closely with Senator Durbin, the bill's author, to spotlight this race-based disparity. The Obama Administration endorsed eliminating the sentencing differential at a hearing in April.
 
"The American drug epidemic is a serious problem that we must address, but our drug laws must be smart, fair and rational. The current law is a civil rights injustice. It disproportionately affects minorities and has contributed to the enormous growth in the prison population. It also misdirects limited federal resources on low-level individuals instead of targeting major traffickers," said Senator Cardin. "I commend Senator Durbin for leading a strong coalition in the Senate that understands the urgent need to eliminate this gross disparity."
 
Under current law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine (roughly the weight of two sugar cubes) triggers a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, while trafficking 500 grams (approximately one pound) of powder cocaine triggers the same sentence. The so-called 100:1 sentencing disparity has been in place since 1986. The Fair Sentencing Act would eliminate the disparity, treating crack and powder cocaine equally.
 
The dramatically higher penalties for crack have disproportionately affected the African American community. While only 25 percent of crack users are African American, they constituted 81 percent of those convicted for crack offenses in 2007.  The current drug sentencing policy is also the single greatest cause of the record levels of incarceration in our country.  One in every thirty-one Americans is in prison, on parole, or on probation, including one in eleven African-Americans. Over 50% of current federal inmates are imprisoned for drug crimes. 
 
The Fair Sentencing Act will:  
  • Eliminate the sentencing disparity by instituting a 1:1 ratio for crack and powder sentencing.   
  • Increase the quantity of crack cocaine needed to trigger a mandatory sentence. Under this new law, possession of 500 grams of crack and 500 grams of powder cocaine would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. Similarly, 5,000 grams of crack or powder would trigger a 10-year sentence.   
  • Direct federal resources toward large-scale drug trafficking cases and violent offenders by increasing the number of aggravating factors subject to higher penalties.   
A broad coalition of legal, law enforcement, civil rights, and religious groups from across the political spectrum supports eliminating the crack-powder disparity, including Attorney General Holder, Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton, Miami Police Chief John Timoney, the American Bar Association, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Black Police Association, and the United Methodist Church.
 
The bill also is co-sponsored by Judiciary Committee Members Feingold (D-WI), Whitehouse (D-RI), Kaufman (D-DE), and Franken (D-MN).  Senators Kerry (D-MA) and Dodd (D-CT) are original co-sponsors.