02 August 2010

Crack Sentencing Reform Passed

A bill that would greatly reduce, but not eliminate, disparities in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine for mandatory minimum sentence and sentencing guideline purposes passed Congress on last week and a Presidential signature of the bill that secured near consensus support in Congress is likely to be signed.

The sentences are the single most widely criticized part of the federal sentencing regime. Mandatory minimum sentences and harsh guideline sentences for marijuana offenses and for mere possession of child pornography offenses also receive great criticism.

The bill is expected to dramatically reduce the number of long, mandatory minimum sentences for possession of crack cocaine, and provision that has had extremely disparate racial impact.

Key points:

Under old law, five grams of crack cocaine and 500 grams of powder cocaine trigger the same five-year sentence. Fifty grams of crack cocaine and five kilograms of powder cocaine trigger the same 10-year sentence. This created what is commonly referred to as the 100-to-one ratio between crack and powder cocaine.

The Fair Sentencing Act will:

* Replace the 100-to-1 ratio with an 18-to-1 ratio (28 grams will trigger a 5-year mandatory minimum and 280 grams will trigger a ten-year mandatory minimum)
* Eliminate the five-year mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine;
* Call for increased penalties for drug offenses involving vulnerable victims, violence and other aggravating factors; and
* Require a report on the effectiveness of federally funded drug courts.

The law is not retroactive, meaning that it will not apply to anyone who committed their crack offense before the law was signed.

Scientifically, studies have shown that crack cocaine and powder cocaine have the same effect on a person's body, just as equivalent amounts of alcohol make you equally drunk whether they are in wine, beer or liquor.

What impact will S 1789 have?

o Impact almost 3,000 crack offenders each year
o Reduce crack sentences by 27 months, on average
o Save over 1,500 prison beds over the next five years
o Save $42 million over the next five years
o Not impact any crack offenders who are currently in prison

• Each year, approximately 5,500 to 6,200 crack offenders are sentenced in federal courts
• Last year alone, 5,684 people were sentenced for crack, and
o Of those, 1,856 received a 5-year mandatory minimum
o 2,710 received a 10-year mandatory minimum
• 73,128 crack offenders have been sentenced in federal courts since 1996
o Of those, 21,696 received a 5-year mandatory minimum
o 35,981 received a 10-year mandatory minimum

The bill fits a larger picture of the winding down of the war on drugs in the United States, with Colorado reducing sentences for drug offenses and giving more attention to treatment in the last legislative session, and moves to legalize marijuana for medical purposes and either short sentences in connection with it or decriminalize it rising.

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