Bill Moving Through Congress to Close Crack/Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

By Leticia Miranda Oct 19, 2009

After over 20 years of unjust sentencing laws around crack cocaine, Congress is considering a bill that would eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and cocaine powder. Right now, someone possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine, which weighs less than two sugar packets, gets a mandatory sentence of five years in prison, which is the same sentence for someone who is selling 500 grams of powder cocaine. That means you’d need to sell 100 times more cocaine powder than crack cocaine to get 5 years in prison. Because crack cocaine is cheaper, it’s used more by poor and low-income folks. Because cocaine powder is more expensive and has that celebrity appeal, it’s used by mostly white, rich people. But the bill, called the Fair Sentencing Act, would increase the amount of crack cocaine that would get you 5 years in prison to the same amount as is required now for selling powder cocaine. Basically, under the law, people would need to be caught with 500 grams of crack cocaine before getting sent to prison. Some in law enforcement are grumbling about the bill saying that lawmakers should increase the penalties for powder cocaine to the same as crack cocaine. But because state’s budgets and prisons are already stressed, lawmakers are steering away from the idea. About half of the people in federal prison are there because of drug charges. Did I mention most of them are Black? Not too much of a surprise for many of us. But in case you need a number to back you up if you find yourself in semi-frequent political arguments and discussions like I do, according to the LA Times, 80 percent of people inside prison for crack cocaine are Black. Since the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which was made law after media frenzy around basketball player Len Bias’ death, a 2006 ACLU report came out with some numbers showing how the law disproportionately affects Black users.

Prior to the enactment of federal mandatory minimum sentencing for crack cocaine offenses in 1986, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11 percent higher than for whites. Four years later, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49 percent higher.

They also reported that while Blacks make up 15 percent of the country’s drug users, they make up 74 percent of people put in prison for a drug offense. And although more than 66 percent of crack users are Latino or white, Blacks make up 80 percent of people sentenced to prison for using crack. The Obama Administration hasn’t made any official statements about its support, but advocates of the bill are hopeful that Obama will stay true to his earlier stance against this sentencing disparity.