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Advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights and religious organizations walked the halls of Congress today to push a bill that would eliminate the unjust and discriminatory 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences under federal law. The goal of the April 28 "Crack the Disparity Lobby Day" was to urge lawmakers to co-sponsor and support H.R. 265, the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2009 introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), which would equalize crack and cocaine sentencing statutes.
Under current law, possession of only five grams of crack cocaine triggers the same mandatory minimum sentence as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. This is often referred to as the federal 100-to-1 disparity. There is a strong racial component to the disparity: crack arrestees are far more likely to be black, even though the majority of users are white.
"Over the past 15 years, all of the myths justifying heightened penalties for crack have been debunked," said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative. "The biggest difference between crack and powder cocaine is the skin color of those arrested. In comparison to powder cocaine, crack was previously believed to be instantly addicting, producing a generation of dependent-for-life 'crack babies' and leading to violent behavior, but we now know that powder cocaine and crack cocaine have the same effect on users. The law must catch up to the research. Congress must eliminate the statutory 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine."
Both the executive and judicial branches of the federal government support ending the crack cocaine disparity. The White House website lists the complete elimination of the disparity as a civil rights priority. Moreover, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has recommended repeatedly that Congress should address the crack disparity.
"The executive and judicial support for ending the crack cocaine disparity reflects an acknowledgment of its discriminatory effect as well as the fact that imprisoning crack cocaine offenders for excessive and discriminatory prison terms stretches an already overburdened prison system and depletes shrinking government budgets," said Jennifer Bellamy, ACLU Legislative Counsel. "But despite support from two of three branches of governments, a change in the mandatory minimum crack statutes can only occur legislatively. Today we sent a loud message to Congress that the time has come to end the crack cocaine disparity."