Closer to sentencing sanity

CLOSER TO SENTENCING SANITY…. Sentencing disparities when it comes to cocaine have long been a national embarrassment. We’ve been dealing with an indefensible 100-to-1 ratio — a person caught selling five grams of crack will face the same mandatory minimum sentence as someone selling 500 grams of powder cocaine.

Because the 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.

The Obama administration strongly endorsed changing the law and ending the disparity altogether, and the House agreed. Yesterday, senators balked at making the same change, but at least took a modest step in the right direction.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously today to reduce the discrepancy that has existed for more than two decades in federal penalties for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

Under current federal law, a person convicted of having 5 grams of crack cocaine receives the same mandatory sentence of at least 5 years as someone who had 500 grams of powder cocaine. Under the new bill, it would take 28 grams of crack cocaine to prompt a mandatory minimum sentence.

“This solution is far from perfect, but it offers an opportunity to get this done and make an important and bipartisan change in this policy this year, one that will move us closer to achieving fairness in our sentencing laws,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Republican on the committee.

Adam Serwer has more on the deal came together, and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin’s (D-Il..) efforts on the matter.

It’s hard to be too pleased with a measure that doesn’t eliminate the disparity entirely, but as the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums noted, “If this imperfect bill becomes law, it will provide some long-overdue relief to thousands of defendants sentenced each year.”