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.