Congress passes bill to cut crack-powder cocaine sentencing gap

By Kimberly Atkins

Dolan Media Newswires

BOSTON, MA--Congress has sent a bill to the desk of President Barack Obama that would cut the disparity between federal sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.

The measure is expected to be signed soon by Obama, who said Thursday that it was ''the right thing to do.''

The Fair Sentencing Act, S. 1789, passed by the House Wednesday and by the Senate in the spring, will cut the crack-powder disparity in sentencing from about 100-1 to 18-1. It would also eliminate five-year mandatory minimum sentencing for crack offenses for first time offenders as well as for crimes involving less than 28 grams of the drug. Previously individuals convicted of crimes involving five grams or more of the drug faced the mandatory minimum.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission had urged Congress to address the disparity, citing studies showing that lengthy crack-related sentences have a disproportionately high impact on minority defendants.

Carolyn M. Lamm, president of the American Bar Association, who had urged Congress to reduce the disparity even further, praised the bill as a step in the right direction.

''The 100-1 sentencing disparity - enacted in 1986 - has contributed to and exacerbated extreme racial disparities in the federal justice system,'' Lamm said in a statement.

The measure increases fines and penalties for major drug trafficking and importing drugs.

''In passing this reform, precious federal resources can be refocused on major drug trafficking and traffickers, rather than on users and low-level street corner offenses better handled at the state and local level,'' Lamm said. ''This is a substantial and important step towards fair and responsible sentencing policy.''

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Published: Thu, Aug 12, 2010