US President Barack Obama [official website] on Tuesday signed legislation that reduces the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 [S 1789 materials] amends 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. The House of Representatives [official website] approved the bill last week [JURIST report]. Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] praised the bill's passage [press release], 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 the bill [statement], saying that it will "go a long way toward ensuring that our sentencing laws are tough, consistent, and fair." Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) [official websites] spoke out against the bill, arguing that reducing penalties could lead to increased violence in communities [press release].
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 that more than 3,000 prison inmates convicted of crack cocaine offenses had their sentences reduced [JURIST report] 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.