Parity in Cocaine Sentences Gains Momentum

By Carrie Johnson,, July 25, 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.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) forecast the idea during confirmation hearings this month for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor when he said, "I think we're going to do that crack thing."

Senior leaders at the Justice Department have launched a wide review of sentencing practices. They include laws dating to the drug epidemic in the 1980s that penalized crack cocaine offenders at rates 100 times higher than people caught with the same amount of powder cocaine.

"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."

In testimony to Congress this year, Justice Department Criminal Division chief Lanny A. Breuer cited statistics reflecting that more than 80 percent of criminals sentenced for crack-related offenses are black. Blacks log only 27 percent of powder-cocaine crimes, an issue highlighted for years by members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Key administration figures have offered support for the initiative, which President Obama and Vice President Biden promoted on the campaign trail.

But the idea has been fought in the past by groups representing prosecutors, police chiefs and narcotics officers. One thorny question for lawmakers is whether the measure should apply retroactively to those in prison, a move that could invite logistical and legal complications for courthouses already struggling with heavy caseloads.

The House bill, known as the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act, still requires a vote by the Judiciary Committee and the full House. Sponsored by Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), the legislation removes references to "cocaine base" from the U.S. federal code, a provision that has encompassed crack cocaine.

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