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House committee passes bill to eliminate cocaine sentencing disparity

[JURIST] The US House Judiciary Committee [official website] voted 16-9 Wednesday to approve [press release] a bill [HR 3245 materials] that would eliminate sentencing disparities for powder and crack cocaine offenses. The bill, co-sponsored by committee chairman John Conyers (D-MI) [official website] would eliminate the distinction between the two forms of the drug under federal law. Conyers said:

We have taken a big step today toward ending the disparity that exists between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. African Americans serve almost as much time in federal prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months), largely due to sentencing laws such as the 100-to-1 crack-powder cocaine disparity. Since 1980, the number of offenders in federal prisons for drug offenses has skyrocketed from less than 5,000 to almost 100,000 in 2009. Currently, drug offenders represent 52% of all federal prison inmates.

The time is long overdue to fix this law that the U.S. Sentencing Commission agrees disproportionately punishes African-Americans. After many years of hard work on this issue, we are one step closer to eliminating this inequity in federal sentencing.
The bill is supported by both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) [press releases]. It will now go before the full House for consideration.

Crack cocaine sentencing policies have raised issues in the past about a disparate impact on African American offenders. Last month, US Attorney General Eric Holder [official profile] urged sentencing reform [transcript text; JURIST report] for crack cocaine, calling for a review of disparities between sentencing guidelines for powder and crack. In April, other DOJ officials said Congress should eliminate the sentencing disparities [JURIST report] between crimes committed involving crack and powder cocaine during a hearing [materials] of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs [official website]. In April 2008, a study by the USSC reported [study, PDF; JURIST report] that more than 3,000 prison inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses have had their sentences reduced under an amendment to sentencing guidelines. In 2007, the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] voted unanimously [JURIST report] to give retroactive effect to an earlier sentencing guideline amendment that reduced crack cocaine penalties [press release]. The amendment was intended to reduce the disparity between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine sentences.

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