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Bill to End Federal Cocaine Sentencing Gap Poised to Pass

Ten Republican senators have signed onto a bill to eliminate the federal sentencing gaps between crimes involving crack and powder cocaine, giving it the 60 votes it needs to pass, Bloomberg News reports. The measure passed in the House by 361-66 and is expected to be signed by President Biden. The bill, sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), would even out the quantity thresholds for sentencing by making crack possessors subject to the same thresholds as powder cocaine possessors. Federal law provides that anyone found with 28 grams of crack cocaine is subject to the same five year mandatory prison term reserved for people carrying 500 grams of powder cocaine. The notion of punishing crack possessors more harshly goes back to 1986, though at that time the disparity was far greater. Currently, the sentencing disparity for crack possessors as opposed to powder cocaine possessors sits at about 18-1. When it was conceived in 1986, it was around 100-1.

Calls to reduce or eliminate the gap have been ongoing at least since the 1990s. In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended amending the law because it worked to punish small-time crack dealers "far more severely" than large suppliers of powder cocaine. Booker and others say the sentencing disparity unjustly targets Black defendants. In 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that 77.1 percent of crack trafficking defendants were Black and 6.3 percent were white. The 2020 National Survey of Drug Use and Health said white people are more likely to use cocaine in their lifetime than are any other demographic.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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