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Feb 6, 2011

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-220) was an Act of Congress signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on August 3, 2010. Similar bills were introduced in several U.S. Congresses before its passage in 2010. The law reduced the disparity between United States federal criminal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses from a 100:1 ratio to an 18:1 ratio (based on the number of grams of cocaine in possession) and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine, among other provisions.Courts had also acted to reduce the sentencing disparity prior to the bill's passage.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 implemented the initial disparity, reflecting Congress's view that crack cocaine was a more dangerous and harmful drug than powder cocaine. In the decades since, extensive research by the United States Sentencing Commission and other experts has suggested that the differences between the effects of the two drugs is exaggerated and that the sentencing disparity is unwarranted. Additional controversy surrounding the 100:1 ratio was a result of its description by some as being racially biased and contributing to a disproportionate number of African Americans being sentenced for crack cocaine offenses. Legislation to reduce the disparity had been introduced since the mid-1990s, culminating in the signing of the Fair Sentencing Act.
The Act has been described as improving the fairness of the justice system in the United States, and prominent politicians and non-profit organizations have called for further reforms. These include making the law retroactive and a complete elimination of the disparity with a 1:1 sentencing ratio
Although the 100:1 federal sentencing ratio remained unchanged from 1986 to 2010, two U.S. Supreme Court cases provided lower courts with discretion in determining penalties for cocaine sentences. Kimbrough v. United States (2007) and Spears v. United States gave lower courts the option to set penalties and allowed judges who disagreed with the Sentencing Guidelines to depart from the statutory ratio based on policy concerns. In 2009, the U.S. District Courts for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Western District of Virginia and District of Columbia used these cases to create one-to-one sentencing ratios of crack cocaine to powder cocaine.United States v. Booker (2005) and Blakely v. Washington (2004) also weakened the Sentencing Guidelines as a whole by making them advisory.

Proposed legislation

The U.S. Sentencing Commission first called for reform of the 100:1 sentencing disparity in 1994 after a year-long study on the differing penalties for powder and crack cocaine required by the Omnibus Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The Commission found that the sentencing disparity was unjustified due to the small differences between the two forms of cocaine, and advised Congress to equalize the quantity ratio that would trigger mandatory sentences. Congress rejected the Commission's recommendations for the first time in the Commission's history.
In April 1997, the Commission again recommended a reduction in the disparity, providing Congress with a range from 2:1 to 15:1 to choose from. This recommendation would have raised the quantity of crack and lowered the quantity of powder cocaine required to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. Congress did not act on this recommendation. In 2002, the Commission again called for reducing sentencing disparities in its Report to Congress based on extensive research and testimony by medical and scientific professionals, federal and local law enforcement officials, criminal justice practitioners, academics, and civil rights organizations
Congress first proposed bipartisan legislation to reform crack cocaine sentencing in 2001, when Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) introduced the Drug Sentencing Reform Act. This proposal would have raised the amount of crack cocaine necessary for a five-year mandatory minimum from 5 grams to 20 grams and would have lowered the amount of powder cocaine necessary for the same sentence from 500 grams to 400 grams, a 20:1 ratio
During the 110th United States Congress, seven crack cocaine sentencing reform bills were introduced that would have reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses without increasing mandatory sentences
In the Senate, Orrin Hatch (R-UT) sponsored the Fairness in Drug Sentencing Act of 2007 (S. 1685) that would have created a 20:1 ratio by increasing the five-year quantity trigger for mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine to 25 grams and leaving the powder cocaine level at 500 grams
Former senator and current Vice President of the United States Joe Biden sponsored the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007 (S. 1711), which would have completely eliminated the disparity by increasing the amount of crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum prison terms to those of powder cocaine.
Both of these bills would have eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum prison term for first-time possession of crack cocaine
 In the House of Representatives, Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) sponsored the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007 (H.R. 4545), the companion to Biden's proposed bill
Charles Rangel sponsored the Crack-Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act of 2007 (H.R. 460), a bill he had been introducing since the mid-1990s that would have equalized cocaine sentencing and eliminated specified mandatory minimum penalties relating to the trafficking in, and possession, importation, or distribution of, crack cocaine.


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Posted: Sunday February 6, 2011, 11:20 am
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