by Christopher Kang, ACS Board Member and National Director of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans
Supporters of Sen. Jeff Sessions’s nomination to become attorney general defend his civil rights record by pointing to his role in passing the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses. In the context of Sen. Sessions’s overall civil rights record and his opposition to criminal justice reform, even full-throated leadership on this issue would not be enough to overcome concerns about him becoming our nation’s top law enforcement officer, but given efforts to use this law to deflect from that overall record, a closer look is necessary. I was the lead White House legislative affairs staffer on the Fair Sentencing Act and I can tell you that Sen. Sessions’s efforts were only somewhat helpful—and since then have been a far cry from leadership.
Background and History
In 1986, Congress established new sentences for cocaine offenses: possession of five grams of crack cocaine (roughly the weight of two sugar cubes) triggered a mandatory minimum five-year sentence, while trafficking 500 grams (approximately one pound) of powder cocaine triggered the same sentence. This disparity was often referred to as a 100:1 ratio and because more than 80 percent of crack cocaine offenders have been African American, the disparity has had an undeniable racial impact.
In 2001, Sen. Sessions introduced legislation to reduce this disparity to 20:1. However, his approach was to only slightly increase the amount of crack cocaine necessary to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence—and to couple that with decreasing the amount of powder cocaine necessary to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence.