With passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 by the House this week, Congress at last has reduced the highly unjust sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses that has been on the books for two decades. It has taken years of research, hearings and negotiations to reach this point, and although the compromises made to pass the legislation weakened it, the act is still an important step in the right direction. It shrinks the disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1. That is still not entirely fair; it would have been appropriate to eliminate the disparity and require equal sentences for both, as was first proposed by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
Correction:An July 31 editorial on the Fair Sentencing Act of 1010, which would reduce the disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses, said the U.S. Sentencing Commission had estimated savings of $42 million in the first five years. That estimate was by the Congressional Budget Office.
Instead, the legislation, which matches a bill passed by the Senate in March, raises the minimum quantity of crack cocaine necessary to trigger a five-year sentence from 5 grams to 28, and raises the amount that triggers a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence from 50 grams to 280 grams. The amount of powder cocaine required to trigger mandatory minimums remains the same: 500 grams.
There was never any scientific basis for the disparity, just panic as the crack epidemic swept the nation's cities. But cocaine in rock form is not 100 times more addictive than cocaine in powder form, as was believed at the time. Research long ago debunked that myth, but until now, members of Congress have refused to adjust the sentencing, loath to appear soft on crime even in a just cause.
In the spring of 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission noted that the disparity was having unintended consequences. It created an unfair and artificial racial imbalance in federal prisons and led to more severe sentences for low-level crack dealers than for wholesale suppliers of powder cocaine. The commission proposed a reduction in the ratio, but Congress and President Clinton rejected the recommendation. As a result, thousands of people — mostly African Americans — have received disproportionately harsh prison sentences. According to the Sentencing Commission, implementation of the Fair Sentencing Act could reduce the federal prison population by thousands of offenders and save an estimated $42 million in the first five years.
The compromise isn't perfect, but it's a big improvement, and many lives will be spared when President Obama signs the bill.