On July 28, the House of Representatives passed the Fair Sentencing Act (S.1789) to restore fairness to Federal cocaine sentencing. The legislation, which matches a measure passed in March by the Senate, is aimed at reducing the current sentencing disparity of those convicted of possession of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine and eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing. In a released statement, the NAACP expressed support for the legislation calling the current sentencing practices “racially discriminating.”
“Because of the mandatory minimum jail sentence for those convicted of possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine or more, people of color are being put in prisons at much higher rates than their Caucasian counterparts, and the judges have no discretion to mitigate the sentence for first-time or nonviolent offenders or special circumstances.” said Benjamin Jealous, CEO and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “This is the first time Congress has moved to reduce any mandatory minimum sentence, regardless of how racially discriminatory they may be.”
Under the current sentencing guidelines, conviction on a charge of possession of five grams of crack cocaine draws a mandatory prison term of five years and possession of 10 grams draws a mandatory 10-year prison sentence. The sentencing threshold for possession of powder cocaine is 100 times higher.
Under the bill that passed Congress, a five-year prison term would be triggered by conviction of possession of 280 grams of crack cocaine.
If enacted, the bill would also increase penalties for major drug traffickers and violent acts committed during trafficking. An increased emphasis is to be placed on a defendant’s role and certain other factors associated with the offense, such as knowingly selling a controlled substance to a minor, involvement in importation into the United States, bribing or attempting to bribe law enforcement officials and using others through coercion, friendship or affection to sell, transport, or store a controlled substance.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also expressed his support of the bill’s passage stating that the bill “will go a long way toward ensuring that our sentencing laws are tough, consistent, and fair.”
The bill will not retroactively address those already serving sentences for crack cocaine possession. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law in the coming weeks.