Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / News / Government Federal / Law addresses cocaine sentencing disparity

Law addresses cocaine sentencing disparity

The fight is not over for supporters of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

The legislation reduces the disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for federal crack cocaine and powder cocaine cases, which differed by a 100-1 margin, but will not provide relief for those in prison under the old law.

Proponents want to make it retroactive.

The legislation, which marks the first reduction of federal mandatory sentences in 40 years, received final approval in the House on Wednesday and is being forwarded to President Obama to be signed into law. It was passed by unanimous voice vote in the Senate in March.

Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, mandatory minimum sentences were created for cases involving cocaine. The terms differed, however, for the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine, of which the latter had been considered a more dangerous and addictive drug. The five-year minimum terms were triggered by five grams of crack cocaine or 500 grams of powder cocaine, creating the 100-1 disparity.

The soon-to-be new law increases the amount of crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum prison sentence.

“It’s an important law rectifying a grossly unfair statute that was racially biased,” said Federal Public Defender Marianne Mariano of the Western District of New York in Buffalo. “It’s a very important piece of legislation which I think is demonstrated by the fact it enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress.”

Mariano said the law was racially biased because minorities, who made up the majority of crack cocaine offenders, were being punished more severely. More powder cocaine users were white.

U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. declined to comment as it is his office’s policy not to comment on pending legislation.

The American Bar Association is calling passage of the Fair Sentencing Act a victory for common sense, bipartisanship and the American people.

“In passing this reform, precious federal resources can be refocused on major drug trafficking and traffickers, rather than on users and low-level street corner offenses better handled at the state and local level,” says a statement issued by ABA President Carolyn B. Lamm. “This is a substantial and important step towards fair and responsible sentencing policy. The House voice vote on this long-contentious issue represents a rare bipartisan achievement in the criminal justice reform area, one that is nearly unprecedented.”

“It was a very exciting moment because we have been fighting for it for so long,” Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said of the House vote. “I would have been even more ecstatic if it had been made retroactive.”

She said the new law will not apply to people already serving lengthy prison terms under the 1986 law and that the fight to make it retroactive will begin as soon as it is signed by the president.

Stewart said the new law does not eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing. It simply changes the amount that will trigger imposition. Under the new law, it will take 28 grams of crack cocaine to trigger a mandatory minimum five-year sentence and 280 grams for 10 years.

“They’re still going to be sent away,” Stewart said. “They will be punished for their crimes. The punishment needs to fit the crimes.”

She said about 3,000 people a year will benefit from the new law with sentences reduced by about 27 months on average. She said the new law will also save more than 1,500 prison beds and $42 million over the next five years.

Stewart said the only “no” vote came from Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas.

“There are people, like Lamar Smith, who will never see sentencing reform differently than they already do,” Stewart said. “I think people do need to consider the cost and whether we can incarcerate our way out of our problems,” Stewart said. “For the past 20 years, that’s what we have been trying to do and it has failed. As the mother of two young daughters, I would much rather have people behind bars who are going to harm me rather than people we are simply mad at.”

One comment

  1. Good news. This law needs to be retroactive. Many who have fought for this new law, we have fought to help people locked up, and so far this law is benefiting those who have yet to be locked up.