The House of Representatives recently approved the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a major step forward in reducing the disparity between the sentencings for crack and powder cocaine.
Currently a person convicted of possession of crack cocaine gets the same prison term as someone with 100 times the amount of powder cocaine. Human Rights Watch reports that in 2008, the average sentence for federal crack cocaine offenders was 114.5 months, while the average sentence for powder cocaine offenders was 91 months.
The new legislation raises the minimum quantity of crack cocaine necessary for a five-year sentence from 5 grams to 28, reducing the disparity from 100:1 to 18:1. The Fair Sentencing Act also eliminates the current mandatory minimum five-year sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine, the only federal mandatory minumum sentence for the possession of any drug. However, the amount of powder cocaine required for a mandatory sentence remains the same.
One significant reprecussion of the crack cocaine laws is the overrepresentation of black Americans in prison. In 2007, blacks made up 82.7 percent of those convicted of crack possession, while whites and Latinos made up 71.4 percent of those convicted of powder cocaine. The former group received harsher sentences than the latter groups despite the fact that they all used the same drug.
The stricter crack laws also takes its toll on the nation in general, as more money is spent on prisons. The Sentencing Commission estimates that the new legislation could reduce the federal prison population by thousands and save $42 million in the first five years.
Crack was widely assumed to be more addictive and cause more violence than powder cocaine, but research has shown such assumptions to be false. There is no reason for crack cocaine users to be punished more harshly than powder cocaine users when they are using the same dangerous drug. The Fair Sentencing Act is not entirely fair, as it keeps the disparity at 18:1, but it is a step in the right direction.