Wednesday, July 28, 2010

US House votes to reduce crack/powder disparity

I just finished watching the US House floor debate on S1789 reducing the crack/powder disparity in federal sentencing guidelines from 100-1 to 18-1 and am pleased to see the bill is now headed to the President in a rare bipartisan moment for Washington. I'd prefer they equalize it - the issue is the quantity of drugs required to trigger federal mandatory minimum sentences - but this is a substantial improvement. The bill raises from 5-28 grams the amount needed to trigger mandatory minimums.

During the debate, Texas Congressman Ron Paul quipped that instead of the "Fair Sentencing Act" the bill should be called the "Slightly Fairer Sentencing Act" because they didn't reduce it to 1:1, calling to repeal the entire war on drugs. Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee made some strong comments in favor of the legislation, and even authors of the original 1986 legislation said they couldn't justify the 100-1 disparity.

Texas Congressman Lamar Smith opposed the bill, saying Congress shouldn't reduce penalties for any drug crimes. The bill "sends the wrong message to drug dealers," he said, warning that the law would wreak havoc, using bombastic language about crack "ravaging" communities. It turned out not to matter; the legislation passed on a voice vote.

FWIW, in an era when everyone says Congress spends too much and never cuts the budget, the Congressional Budget Office says "S. 1789 would lead to reduced spending for the federal prison system totaling $42 million over the 2011-2015 period," likely much more in the out years.

President Obama has said he'll sign this landmark legislation if it reaches his desk, so congrats to everyone who worked on it for what appears to be a substantial, if decidedly incremental victory.

MORE: Via press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums:
While S. 1789 will not eliminate the mandatory minimum for trafficking crack cocaine, it will substantially reduce racial disparity in cocaine sentencing.  The infamous 100-to-1 sentencing ratio will be reduced to 18 to 1.  Moving forward, 28 grams of crack cocaine will trigger a five-year prison sentence and 280 grams of crack will trigger a 10-year sentence.   Once enacted, the law could affect an estimated 3,000 cases annually, reducing sentences by an average of about two years and saving an estimated $42 million over five years. The bill does not provide any relief for people in prison serving crack cocaine sentences because it does not provide for retroactivity. The bill also provides for enhanced sentences for drug offenses involving vulnerable victims, violence and other aggravating factors.

For more detailed information about the history of the federal crack disparity and the changes that will result for S. 1789, click here
The bill passed out of committee 16-9. See additional commentary from Sentencing Law and Policy, the Sentencing Project, AP, Stop the Drug War, and Huffington Post.


Anonymous said...

I'll smoke to that.

Bookof Venus said...

Hey all,
There's a petition going around regarding the Sentencing law and clemency. Have you seen it?