Sentencing Discrimination

S. 1711/H.R. 4545, the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007 introduced by Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) and Representative Shelia Jackson-Lee (D-TX) would eliminate the current disparity in federal sentences for crack versus powder cocaine offenses.

The 100 to 1 disparity has had a disproportionate impact on African-Americans. For example, in 2006, whites constituted 8.8% and African-Americans constituted more than 80% of the defendants sentenced under the harsh federal crack cocaine laws, despite the fact that more than 66% of crack cocaine users in the United States are white or Hispanic.

In four separate reports to Congress issued in 1995, 1997, 2002 and 2007, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) urged Congress to reconsider the statutory penalties for crack cocaine. Judges, federal prosecutors, medical professionals and other experts have all joined the USSC in calling for a reassessment of current sentencing policy. Additionally, there have been a number of recent developments surrounding this issue:

In November 2007, new sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses went into effect as the result of an amendment proposed by the USSC in April that went unchallenged by Congress. The USSC estimates that the amendment would reduce crack sentences by 15 months on average and reduce the size of the federal prison population by 3,800 in 15 years.

On December 10, 2007 the Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision in Kimbrough v. United States held that federal judges can sentence crack cocaine offenders below the federal sentencing guidelines if they disagree with the 100 to 1 statutory disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

One day later, after holding a hearing and receiving public comment from over 30,000 individuals and organizations, the USSC voted unanimously to apply the reductions to the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses retroactively. The decision, effective March 3, 2008, makes an estimated 19,500 persons in prison eligible to apply for a sentence reduction expected to average just over two years. The releases are subject to judicial review and will be staggered over 30 years. Defendants convicted of crack cocaine offenses are still subject to harsh mandatory minimum sentences and the 100 to 1 sentencing disparity.

Even with all these very exciting developments, it is critical to remember the changes represent only incremental progress in the effort to reform the federal crack cocaine law.

The USSC's guideline changes will not eliminate or even significantly alleviate the very long mandatory minimum sentences that many people are serving for crack cocaine offenses. Congress still must act in order to eliminate the statutory 100 to 1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine. It has been more than 20 years . . . 2008 is the time for Congress to crack the disparity!

Take Action: Tell Congress to end the 100 to 1 disparity!