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Senate Judiciary Committee approves bill reducing cocaine sentencing disparities

[JURIST] The US Senate Judiciary Committee [official website] Thursday unanimously approved a bill [bill; S. 1789] to reduce sentencing disparities for powder and crack cocaine offenses. The Fair Sentencing Act, introduced by Senator Dick Durbin [D-IL; official profile], is intended to bridge the gap between crack and powder cocaine sentencing by amending the Controlled Substances Act [text] and the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act [text]. The Act directs the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] to review its trafficking guidelines to reflect aggravating factors such as the use of a weapon or commission of violence. It would increase the amount of crack cocaine required for imposition of a mandatory trafficking prison term and eliminate the five year mandatory prison sentence for simple possession of crack.

Last July, the US House Judiciary Committee [official website] approved a similar bill [JURIST report] that would eliminate the distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine under federal law. Crack cocaine sentencing policies have raised controversy by virtue of their disparate impact on African American offenders. Last June, 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 USSC voted unanimously [JURIST report] to give retroactive effect to an earlier sentencing guideline amendment that reduced crack cocaine penalties [press release].

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