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US House approves bill to reduce cocaine sentencing disparity

The US House of Representatives [official website] approved a bill Wednesday that would reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 [S 1789 materials] would amend existing law to reduce the current sentencing ratio from 100:1 to 18:1. Under the existing law passed in 1986, an individual possessing five grams of crack cocaine would receive a mandatory five-year prison sentence, while an individual possessing powder cocaine would need to have 100 times that amount to receive the same sentence. Human Rights Watch [advocacy website] praised [press release] the bill's passage, stating that the current law also created a racial disparity, with African Americans comprising 79.8 percent of all offenders sentenced for crack cocaine violations. Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] also supported [statement] the bill's passage, stating that it will "go a long way toward ensuring that our sentencing laws are tough, consistent, and fair." House Judiciary Committee member Lamar Smith (R-TX) [official websites] was the only member to speak out against the bill [NPR report], arguing that reducing penalties could lead to increased violence in communities [press release]:

Crack cocaine is associated with a greater degree of violence than most other drugs. And more than any other drug, the majority of crack defendants have prior criminal convictions. ... I cannot support legislation that might enable the violent and devastating crack cocaine epidemic of the past to become a clear and present danger.
According to a cost estimate [text, PDF] published by the Congressional Budget Office [official website] in March, the Fair Sentencing Act would save the federal prison system $42 million between 2011 and 2015. The bill will now be sent to President Barack Obama [official website] for his consideration and signature. Obama called for a reduction in the sentencing disparity during his presidential campaign in 2008.

The bill was introduced in the Senate by Dick Durbin (D-IL) [official websites] and was passed in March, less than a week after the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the bill [JURIST reports]. Last year, the House Judiciary Committee voted 16-9 to approve a bill [JURIST report] that would have completely eliminated the sentencing disparity between the offenses. In April 2008, a study released by the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] reported [study, PDF; JURIST report] that more than 3,000 prison inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses had their sentences reduced under an amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines [materials]. 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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