Key Senate Committee Passes Cocaine Sentencing Legislation

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Mandy Simon, (202) 236-7031; media@dcaclu.org

Key Senate Committee Passes Cocaine Sentencing Legislation

WASHINGTON - The
Senate Judiciary Committee today voted to approve a bill that would
make much-needed changes to current cocaine sentencing laws. The bill,
the Fair Sentencing Act, was introduced in its original form by Senator
Richard Durbin (D-IL) to completely eliminate the discriminatory 100 to
1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing under federal
law. However, a compromise was reached with Republican committee
members that does not completely eliminate the sentencing disparity but
reduces it to a 20-1 ratio. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2009 will now be
sent to the floor to be voted on by the full Senate.

"For over 20 years now the sentencing disparity between crack and
powder cocaine has created imbalance in our justice system," said Laura
W. Murphy, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington
Legislative Office. "Despite years of medical and legal research
showing no appreciable difference between crack and powder cocaine, we
continue to punish Americans disparately for the same drug. Reducing
the sentencing ratio from 100 to 1 to 20 to 1 is a step forward but
still leaves a hefty and unnecessary disparity. The only constitutional
and fair solution is a 1-1 sentencing ratio for crack and powder
cocaine."

More than two decades ago, based on assumptions about crack which are
now known to be false, heightened penalties for crack cocaine offenses
were adopted. Sentences for crack are currently equivalent to the
sentences for 100 times the amount of powder cocaine, and the impact
falls disproportionately on African Americans. The Fair Sentencing Act
is a step toward a fairer system but falls short of fixing the existing
unjust sentencing framework.

In recent years, a consensus has formed across the political and
ideological spectrum on the crack and powder cocaine sentencing
disparity issue with both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama
urging reform. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Kimbrough v. United States
that federal judges can sentence crack cocaine offenders below the
federal sentencing guidelines, giving judges more discretion to base a
sentence on the evidence.

"There is no justification for this remaining sentencing gap," said
Jennifer Bellamy, ACLU Legislative Counsel. "This legislation is long
overdue but it does not go far enough. With bills in both chambers and
a president demanding legislative action, we finally have the political
will and momentum to end this unconstitutional disparity. We should not
miss this opportunity to effect real change and ensure fair sentencing
for all Americans."
 
In addition for
calling for a 20-1 sentencing ratio, the compromise reached will also
direct the U.S. Sentencing Commission to amend the sentencing
guidelines to reduce penalties for offenders acting out of "fear,
impulse or affection." This last provision takes specific aim at the
so-called "girlfriend problem" which refers to the tendency of the
government to arrest and prosecute low-level, minimally or unknowingly
involved individuals for crimes associated with drug trafficking
operations.

The
ACLU is representing Hamedah Hasan, a mother and grandmother arrested
for crack cocaine possession who is serving her 17th year of a 27-year
federal prison sentence, and has filed a petition with the Department
of Justice's Office of the Pardon Attorney asking that President Obama
commute her remaining sentence. To learn more about the effort, go to www.dearmrpresidentyesyoucan.org

The ACLU's letter in support of the Fair Sentencing Act can be found here:
 www.aclu.org/drug-law-reform_technology-and-liberty/aclu-letter-support-fair-sentencing-act-2009

 

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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