Durbin's Fair Sentencing Act Passed By House, Sent To President For Signature

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – An historic, bipartisan bill to curtail the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine was passed by the House of Representatives this afternoon, sending it to President Obama for his signature. The Fair Sentencing Act, authored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), will reduce the current 100:1 sentencing disparity to 18:1. The bill is cosponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Ranking Member Jeff Sessions. The Senate unanimously passed the measure this March.


“We have talked about the need to address the crack -powder sentencing disparity for far too long. Today’s passage of the Fair Sentencing Act finally addresses one of the greatest injustices in our war on drugs,” Durbin said. “Drug use is still a serious problem in America and we need tough legislation to combat it. But in addition to being tough, our drug laws must be smart and fair. This bipartisan bill is both.”


Under current law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine (roughly the weight of two sugar cubes) triggers a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, while trafficking 500 grams (approximately one pound) of powder cocaine triggers the same sentence. The so-called 100:1 ratio has been in place since 1986.


The dramatically higher penalties for crack have disproportionately affected the African American community: more than 80 percent of those convicted for federal crack offenses.


Law enforcement experts say this racial disparity undermines trust in our criminal justice system and has a corrosive effect on the relationship between law enforcement and minority communities. Former Bush Administration DEA head Asa Hutchinson has testified that, “Under the current disparity, the credibility of our entire drug enforcement system is weakened.” The U.S. Sentencing Commission has said even “perceived improper racial disparity fosters disrespect for and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system.”


The crack trade and the trade in cocaine powder are frequently associated with violence. Yet, crack-related violence has decreased significantly since the 1980’s and today 90 percent of crack cocaine cases do not involve violence. Cases that involve violence are subject to increased sentences, including a mandatory minimum for use of a weapon in connection with a drug trafficking offense.


The Fair Sentencing Act, as introduced, would have completely eliminated the disparity, treating crack and powder cocaine equally. However, in March, Senator Durbin and Chairman Leahy negotiated an agreement with Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to achieve a unanimous committee vote.


The compromise significantly increases fines for drug traffickers and mandates that the U.S. Sentencing Commission significantly increase enhancements for a number of aggravating factors. This tough new language would apply to all drug offenses and not just those involving crack or powder cocaine.


This legislation also would eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine (the only mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of a drug by a first-time offender). This marks the first time Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum since the Nixon administration.