After 24 years on the books, 15 years of trying, 7 Congresses, 10 hearings, three Sentencing Commission reports, and 75,000 defendants sentenced...today, the U.S. Senate voted - unanimously - to make crack cocaine penalties fairer.
Specifically, they agreed to increase the amount of crack cocaine needed to trigger the five- and 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentences. Currently, it takes five grams of crack cocaine to trigger a five-year prison sentence and 50 grams for a 10-year sentence.
If the bill (S. 1789, click here
to download the bill text) that left the Senate on its way to the House today becomes law, it will take 28 grams of crack cocaine to trigger the five-year sentence and 280 grams to hit the 10-year penalty. And people sentenced for simple possession of crack cocaine will no longer be subject to a five-year mandatory minimum.
This is a big improvement over current crack sentencing penalties. It could lower sentences for almost 3,000 people each year. However, the bill is not retroactive and would not help anyone who is already in prison serving a crack cocaine sentence. So, after working on this issue for almost as long as FAMM has been in existence, I'm not thrilled that this is all we got.
Scientists have testified and plenty of evidence has been given that proves that crack cocaine is essentially the same drug as powder cocaine. Yet, when people are sentenced in federal courthouses across the country, it is treated very differently. On average, crack cocaine defendants serve sentences almost two years longer than the ones people serve for powder cocaine offenses.
But politics is seldom about what's right. It's about compromise and getting things done. And given the politics of the day (and the past 15 years) the Senate bill is likely to be the best we can get. To their credit, there were a number of Democrats and Republicans who supported an even better version of this bill, but not enough. It was clear that nothing short of this compromise would actually make it out of the Senate. Without a Senate bill, crack sentencing reform would be dead once again.
The bill now goes to the U.S. House of Representatives where it will meet some obstacles. But because the Senate unanimously approved the bill, it increases its chances that it might make it out of the House.
We'll be working closely with House members to see if we can improve the bill. Because crack cocaine reform is not simply theoretical to us - it is personal. FAMM speaks for people who are in prison and have loved ones in prison.
Since 1995, when Congress killed the reform of the crack sentencing guidelines, nearly 75,000 people have received federal crack cocaine sentences. We will not allow another 75,000 to be sentenced at the current unjustifiable levels.
To prevent that, however, we will accept some compromises that are hard to swallow. I don't look forward to that, but I won't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Too many people have already suffered, which is why we will support this imperfect bill.