Crack Cocaine and Powder Cocaine Punishments Modified

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which will lessen the federal sentencing disparity between crack cocaine possession and powder cocaine possession. The bill, soon to be signed into law by President Obama, will eradicate the current five year federal minimum sentence for someone who possesses only a small amount of crack cocaine. In addition, the amount of crack cocaine that leads to a 10 year minimum federal prison sentence is now much higher, 280 grams as opposed to 50. Previously, one had to possess 100 times more powder cocaine to get the same sentence, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. The new law makes the ratio 18 to 1. This is the first time Congress has nullified a mandatory minimum in over 25 years. The sentencing disparity was viewed as unjust because everything about the two drugs is pharmaceutically the same, except the demographic who buys them. African Americans accounted for 82.7 percent of crack cocaine convictions in 2007. Powder cocaine tends to be purchased by upper class suburban youth, according to the Wall Street Journal. Though the new law only applies in federal courts, which only hears a small fraction of cocaine possession cases, many states have significantly lowered the sentencing disparity already. Virginia, for instance is 2-to-1. Michael Nachmanoff, federal public defender for the eastern division of Virginia, said on National Public Radio, “The triggering quantity…was the source of this tremendous sense of unfairness because such small quantities were resulting in such long sentences for very, very low level street level dealers.” This law could lead to an estimated 2900 crack defendants each year getting an average of 27months less time. By 2020, this could lead to 4000 less inmates in federal prison. “We think it’s a victory,” Julie Stewart from the DC-based Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “It’s not everything we want but that’s politics.” One critique of the law is that is not retroactive, meaning that it will not affect people who are already serving time because of cocaine possession. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) was disappointed about the decision, according to Executive Director Jim Pasco. The FOP wished to have the amount of powder cocaine which triggers a minimum sentences lessened for powder cocaine, not increased for crack cocaine. Republican Representative Lamar Smith from Texas, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, expressed concern that this law “coddles” drug traffickers. To the latter, Nachmanoff responded, “People who are prosecuted in federal court for drug trafficking, whether it’s crack cocaine, powder cocaine or other drugs are still facing serious and substantial penalties. The idea that crack offenders are more dangerous than other kinds of drug offenders simply has not been borne out. In fact, statistics show that the fear that crack cocaine would result in a lot more violence than other kinds of drugs just never came to pass.”


San Francisco Chronicle 7/31/10; Wall Street Journal 7/29/10; National Public Radio 7/30/10

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