By Marc Mauer, Executive Director, The Sentencing Project & Author, Race to Incarcerate
In the midst of often rancorous debate on Capitol Hill, growing bipartisanship is developing in an area that many would have thought extremely unlikely: criminal justice reform. Just last week legislation to establish a national commission to examine the criminal justice system was introduced in the House by the unlikely mix of liberal Democrats William Delahunt and Marcia Fudge along with conservative Republicans Darrell Issa and Tom Rooney. The legislation mirrors a bipartisan bill, introduced by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year. At the time of the bill's introduction, Sen. Webb wrote, "With so many of our citizens in prison compared to the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities. Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different - and vastly counterproductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter."
The criminal justice commission bill comes at a time when significant reform to federal sentencing policy may become a reality for the first time since the enactment of a slew of mandatory sentencing policies in the 1980s. Legislation to reform the longstanding and notorious differential in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine was passed by unanimous consent in the Senate in March and is likely to gain similar support in the House. Under current law, sale of 500 grams of powder cocaine results in a mandatory five-year prison term. But for crack cocaine, possessing as little as five grams carries the same five-year penalty. This 100:1 quantity disparity ratio has been broadly criticized for leading to large-scale prosecutions of low-level crack cocaine offenders, 80 percent of whom have been African American.