The House of Representatives this week joined the Senate in passing legislation that would significantly narrow the gap between statutorily mandated sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, "a step toward ending what legal experts say have been unfairly harsh punishments imposed mainly on blacks," The New York Times reports.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 now awaits signature from President Barack Obama, who said during the 2008 presidential campaign that the sentencing disparity "disproportionately filled our prisons with young black and Latino drug users."
Under current law, the amount of powder cocaine triggering a mandatory minimum sentence is 100 times as much as the amount of crack cocaine triggering sentencing. The bill was passed in 1986 after a spate of drug-related killings.
The new law would decrease the ratio to 18-1 and eliminate the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
"Never before have advocates for crack cocaine sentencing reform been so close to the finish line," writes Laura W. Murphy, director of ACLU's Washington Legislative Office, recalling when she convened the first conference on the crack/powder disparity 17 years ago.
"The ACLU has remained steadfast to eliminating the disparity completely," Murphy writes in The Huffington Post. "However, now that the Senate has acted to pass a reform bill that falls short of our ideal, we must confront the reality that it will nonetheless make important improvements in the lives of many people who would have otherwise been locked away for years, or decades, on end."
A statement from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law also acknowledged that the bill is "not optimal" but applauded the bill's passage as a development that "should not go unnoted."
"The fight is not over," said Lawyers' Committee Public Policy Director Tanya Clay House.
For more on reforming disparities in criminal justice sentencing see video of an ACSblog interview with the Open Society Institute's Senior Policy Analyst Nkechi Taifa. Her interview followed and ACS event on reforming the criminal justice system, including its disparaties in sentencing. Video of the entire panel discussion, "Reorienting Federal Criminal Justice Policy -- An Opportunity for a More Integrative Approach?," is available here.