Every year, thousands of people are put away for long prison terms because of arcane and racist sentencing laws. They punish people caught with crack cocaine -- who are often Black and poor -- 100 times more harshly than those caught with powder cocaine. These laws have broken up families while doing nothing to make our communities safer, and they're part of the reason 1 in 15 Black adults is behind bars.
Last week, the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee had a chance to advance a bill to eliminate the disparity. Instead, they chose to reduce it--with no good reason other than to please "moderate" Democrats and Republicans. And President Obama, who for years has championed ending the disparity, is supporting the bill -- apparently because it's bipartisan. It's shameful.
That's why I've joined ColorOfChange.org in calling on President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanding they show leadership and push for the House version of the bill, which would eliminate the sentencing disparity? Will you join me? It only takes a moment:
Today's unfair sentencing laws treat five grams of crack cocaine the same as 500 grams of powder cocaine -- a disparity of 100-to-1. Under the Senate Judiciary Committee's plan, the laws would change to make 28 grams of crack trigger the same sentence as 500 grams of powder. As one journalist put it, the proposal would "make the law one-fifth as racist as it used to be."
Here's what New York defense attorney Gary G. Becker told the Sentencing Law and Policy blog:
The Senate Judiciary Committee's vote to "reduce" the crack cocaine/powder cocaine punishment disparity from 100:1 to 20:1 is a scandalous, racist, and politically motivated act. In view of the near-unanimous consensus that there is no justifiable basis for punishing crack cocaine more harshly than powder cocaine, and that the 100:1 ratio was both arbitrary and irrational -- even [the] DOJ called for elimination of the disparity -- the Senate Judiciary Committee settles on an equally unsupportable, irrational, and arbitrary punishment scheme, one that will disproportionately affect minorities, destroy families, and promote disrespect for the law.
Attorney General Eric Holder said last week, "There is no law enforcement or sentencing rationale for the current disparity between crack and cocaine powder offenses, and I have strongly supported eliminating it to ensure our sentencing laws are tough, predictable and fair." Yet he went on to give his stamp of approval to the Senate's 20:1 bill and urged Congress to approve it so it can be signed into law.
There is no disagreement that the current sentencing approach pulls non-violent drug offenders out of their communities for unreasonable lengths of time. And most of the committee members, who unanimously supported this plan, acknowledge that the disparity disproportionately affects Black communities.
This is politics at its worst. It's legislation that harms communities instead of helping them -- a direct result of political horse-trading that throws the most vulnerable among us under the bus.
Thankfully, there's a bill in the House that would completely eliminate the sentencing disparity. But if some Senators have their way and are able to quickly send their bill to the House, this diluted compromise could override the House's bill -- our only remaining chance at real reform.
Allowing that to happen would be disastrous. It will mean more broken families and more unequal justice. It will mean that instead of seizing an opportunity to help our communities, Congress and President Obama have decided to write a scaled-back form of discrimination into our laws.
Please join me in telling President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to fight for passage of the House version of the bill: