Congress Passes Law to Reduce Crack/Cocaine Sentencing Disparities

President Barack Obama is expected to sign a bill passed by the House of Representatives Wednesday that will reduce the gap in federal sentences involving the possession of crack cocaine and those involving powder cocaine.

The president has supported the Fair Sentencing Act, which the Senate had already passed.

The act eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine, and raises the five-year mandatory minimum threshold from five grams to 28 grams of crack. It raises the 10-year mandatory minimum threshold to 280 grams.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates that approximately 2,900 defendants will receive lesser sentences each year as a result of the new law.

The law drastically reduces the disparity between federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine, but it hardly makes them equal. Powder possessors need to have 500 grams on them to warrant a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, and 5 kilograms to warrant a 10-year sentence.

“We think it’s a victory,” Julie Stewart, founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s not everything we want but that’s politics.”

It is uncertain to what extent juveniles will be affected by the decision, because the vast majority of all drug users and dealers sentenced in the country receive their sentences in state court.

But changes in federal policies and guidelines are frequently used as precedent in arguments to change state laws, a likely scenario in this case. Because juveniles would be subject to mandatory minimums only if transferred to adult court, the reduced sentences will impact juveniles in states where the age of jurisdiction for adult court is below 18.

New York and North Carolina are the only states where anyone 16 and older is an adult in the eyes of the law. In 10 states, 17-year-olds are considered adults: Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.


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