Overdue progress on sentencing disparity

OVERDUE PROGRESS ON SENTENCING DISPARITY…. Slowly but surely, we’re seeing some progress on the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009.

After two decades of criticism over cocaine sentences that disproportionately punish African Americans, momentum is building in Congress and in the Obama administration for a legislative fix, representing a fundamental shift in politics and attitude, even among key Republican lawmakers.

For the first time after multiple attempts, a House subcommittee this week approved a bill to equalize criminal penalties for people caught with crack cocaine and those caught with powder cocaine. The bill would eliminate mandatory prison terms of no less than five years for possession of crack cocaine.

The subcommittee vote came as a bipartisan group from the Senate Judiciary Committee was working on a similar proposal. It could be unveiled as early as next week, according to two congressional sources familiar with the effort.

I’m pleasantly surprised to see policymakers take this on. This isn’t exactly an issue with a huge political upside, and it’s likely that the right will start howling about the left being “soft on crime,” but a lot of people are doing the right thing anyway. The Obama administration’s willingness to step up on this issue is no doubt helping to move the process forward. (Obama’s chief of the criminal division at the Justice Department has asked Congress to “completely eliminate” the sentencing disparity.)

I’m yet to hear even a half-hearted defense of the status quo. The AP recently noted, “[A] person selling five grams of crack faces the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as someone selling 500 grams of powder cocaine.”

And because the vast majority of crack convictions involve African Americans, while powder cocaine convictions tend to involve whites, there’s also an obvious racial component to the sentencing disparity.

“We all know that this egregious difference in punishment is simply wrong,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told the National Association of Black Prosecutors in a speech Wednesday. “The Department of Justice will never back down from its duty to protect our citizens and our neighborhoods from drugs, or from the violence that all too often accompanies the drug trade. But we must discharge this duty in a way that protects our communities as well as the public’s confidence in the justice system.”

What are the odds this will actually come together and the law will be changed? I’m cautiously optimistic. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) recently drew laughs when he said, “I think we’re going to do that crack thing,” but the comment nevertheless suggested there’s real movement on the issue. It’s about time.