As the House gets ready to adjourn for its August recess, prison reform advocates are urging lawmakers to vote on a bill that would lessen disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which was first introduced by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and passed in the Senate back in March, could dramatically reduce the current 100 to 1 ratio down to 18 to 1. The move, while admittedly imperfect and only slightly less racist than its 25-year-old predecessor, is being heralded as a small but important step forward.
Current federal law is crafted around the falsely held, 1980’s-era belief that crack cocaine was more dangerous than its powder counterpart. Passed in 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act mandated that a person holding five grams of crack cocaine get the same punishment as someone moving 500 grams of powder cocaine which, as Adam Serwer pointed out, did little to deter high level drug traffickers.
It did, however, overwhelmingly impact low-level drug users and dealers. More than 80 percent of people arrested for crack have been black, even though most users are white, and over the past two decades the black prison population has swelled as a result. Even law enforcement officials and tough-on-crime judges have called the sentencing disparity wrongheaded and complained that it creates distrust of courts in black neighborhoods.
The absurdity of it all isn’t lost on lawmakers.
Attorney General Eric Holder has called the sentencing “wildly unjust” while Durbin himself seemed reluctantly resigned to back away from equal sentencing last spring, after he was forced to compromise his original proposal.
What’s left is a bill that’s proposing to be slightly less racist than the one before it. On top of decreasing the sentencing disparity, the Fair Sentencing Act would also eliminate the mandatory-minimum of five years in prison for simple possession.
Calls for reform are being led by advocacy groups that include the Sentencing Project, and both the Washington Post and New York Times have published editorials this week urging Congress to fix the disparity.