Saturday, December 20th, 2014

The Obameter

Eliminate disparity in sentencing for crack and cocaine


"Will work in a bipartisan way to eliminate disparities" between mandatory sentences for trafficking crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, which he believes has disproportionately filled our prison with young black and Latino drug users. "They will also repeal the mandatory minimum sentence for first-time offenders convicted of simple possession of crack, as crack is the only drug that a non-violent first-time offender can receive a mandatory minimum sentence for possessing."


Updates

Congress reduces disparity

We did our last update on President Obama's campaign promise to eliminate the disparity in sentencing for crack and cocaine on July 14, 2010. For the past two decades, possession of five grams of crack cocaine triggered an automatic five-year prison sentence. Because of the so-called 100-to-1 ratio, it would take five hundred grams of cocaine powder to trigger the same sentence. Obama said that this disparity "has disproportionately filled our prison with young black and Latino drug users," and he promised to change it once in office.

When we last reviewed this campaign pledge, we rated it In the Works, but recent Congressional action prompted us to reassess the rating once again.

On March 17, 2010, the Senate passed a bill that would reduce the cocaine-crack disparity ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. Introduced by the Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin, the bill initially called for a 1-to-1 ratio, but that was changed after negotiations in the Senate Judiciary Committee. At the time of our last update, a bill was pending in the House that would have reduced the ratio to 1-to-1, and would have eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. On July 28, 2010, however, House lawmakers agreed to pass a bill that only reduced the disparity; it did not completely eliminate it. The final version of the bill also repealed the mandatory minimum sentence for first-time offenders convicted of simple possession of crack cocaine. President Obama signed the bill into law on August 3, 2010.

Julie Stewart, founder and President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a drug policy advocacy group, said that "members of both parties deserve enormous credit for moving beyond the politics of fear and simply doing the right thing."

President Obama promised to eliminate the disparity in sentencing for crack and cocaine. He also promised to repeal the mandatory minimum sentence for crack possession. He followed through on the second part of the promise, but the disparity was only reduced; it was not eliminated. We rate this Compromise.

Sources:

Main Justice, Congress Passes Crack-Cocaine Sentencing Bill, July 28, 2010

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Press Release: FAMM Hails Elimination of First Mandatory Minimum Since Nixon Administration, July 28, 2010

The Huffington Post, Congress Passes Historic Legislation to Reduce Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity, by Jasmine Taylor, July 28, 2010

The Washington Post, Obama signs Fair Sentencing Act, by Scott Wilson, Aug. 3, 2010

Senate votes to reform crack cocaine sentencing disparity; bill in House

On the campaign trail, candidate Barack Obama pledged to "eliminate disparity in sentencing for crack and cocaine." Under the current law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine triggers an automatic five-year prison sentence. Because of the so-called 100-to-1 ratio, it would take five hundred grams of cocaine powder to trigger the same sentence. Obama said that this disparity "has disproportionately filled our prison with young black and Latino drug users," and he promised to change it once in office. He also promised to eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence for first time offenders convicted of simple possession of crack.

The last time we reviewed this promise, we rated it In the Works, because in April 2009, Lanny Breuer, an assistant attorney general with the Justice Department, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the administration supported changes to the sentencing laws. We decided to check in again now to see if there has been any movement on the promise.

On March 17, 2010, the Senate passed a bill that would reduce the cocaine-crack disparity ratio to 18-to-1. Introduced by the Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin, the bill initially called for a 1-to-1 ratio, but that was changed after negotiations in the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Although this bill is not perfect, and it is not the bill we introduced in order to correct these inequalities, I believe the Fair Sentencing Act moves us one step closer to reaching the important goal of equal justice for all," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

We should also note that the bill passed via unanimous consent, which means that it had the support of both Democrats and Republicans.

A similar bill was approved by the House Judiciary Committee in July 2009. It calls for a 1-to-1 ratio, and eliminates the mandatory minimum sentences that Obama talked about during the campaign. It is currently awaiting vote by the full chamber.

There has definitely been more movement on this promise. The Senate unanimously passed a bill that reduces the sentencing disparity, and the House is considering legislation that would completely eliminate the disparity and get rid of mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. Still, even if that bill passes, the Senate and the House will have to come hammer out the differences in a conference committee. We'll keep watching, but until then, this promise stays In the Works.

Sources:

National Public Radio, Bill Eases Penalty For Crack Cocaine Possession, by Ari Shapiro, March 18, 2010

Main Justice, Senate Passes Crack-Cocaine Sentencing Bill, by Christopher M. Matthews, March 17, 2010

American Civil Liberties Union, Senate Unanimously Passes Cocaine Sentencing Legislation, March 17, 2010

Justice Department official testifies on crack cocaine sentencing

The administration signaled its support for changing the sentencing rules for crack cocaine when an official with the U.S. Justice Department testified before Congress on April 29, 2009.

Lanny Breuer, an Obama appointee and an assistant attorney general with the Justice Department, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the administration supported changes to the sentencing laws.

"Since the United States Sentencing Commission first reported 15 years ago on the differences in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, a consensus has developed that the federal cocaine sentencing laws should be reassessed," Breuer said in prepared testimony. "Indeed, over the past 15 years, our understanding of crack and powder cocaine, their effects on the community, and the public safety imperatives surrounding all drug trafficking has evolved. That refined understanding, coupled with the need to ensure fundamental fairness in our sentencing laws, policy, and practice, necessitates a change. We think this change should be addressed in this Congress, and we look forward to working with you and other Members of Congress over the coming months to address the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine."

Breuer's comments demonstrate a public commitment on behalf of the administration, so we move this promise to In the Works.

Sources:

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, " Restoring Fairness to Federal Sentencing: Addressing the Crack-Powder Disparity ," (hearing) April 29, 2009

U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, testimony of Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer , April 29, 2009