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Senate passes bill to reduce cocaine sentencing disparity

[JURIST] The US Senate [official website] unanimously passed legislation [S 1789 materials] Wednesday to reduce sentencing disparities for powder and crack cocaine [JURIST news archive] offenses. The Fair Sentencing Act, introduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) [official website], would amend existing law to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine convictions from 100:1 to 18:1. Durbin, who originally voted for the sentencing disparity, said that he would have preferred a 1:1 sentencing ratio [AP report] but was happy with the compromise. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] praised the bill but said it does not go far enough and that the proposed sentencing disparities would still disproportionately affect African-Americans. Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office Laura Murphy said [press release]:

The Fair Sentencing Act is an encouraging step toward eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine but still allows for a needlessly unfair sentencing framework. The unanimous passage of this bill speaks to the understanding across the political spectrum that this disparity is unjust and in need of reform. Years of research has yielded no evidence of any appreciable difference between crack and powder cocaine and yet we continue to inflict this disparity on Americans.

For over two decades, this sentencing disparity has been a stain on our justice system. Though this bill's passage is long overdue, it does not go far enough. Without a simple and fair 1-1 sentencing ratio for crack and powder cocaine, we cannot say that these sentencing laws meet constitutional muster.
The proposed law would also eliminate the five-year mandatory sentence for first-time possession of crack cocaine and would increase monetary penalties for drug trafficking. An identical version of the bill is expected to be passed by the House and signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The bill was approved [JURIST report] by the Senate Judiciary Committee [official website] earlier this month. In July, the House Judiciary Committee [official website] voted to completely eliminate [JURIST report] the sentencing disparity. US Attorney General Eric Holder and other officials [JURIST reports] have also spoken publicly in favor of sentencing reform. In 2008, more than 3000 inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses had their sentences reduced [JURIST report] under an amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

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