President Obama signs Durbin’s Fair Sentencing Act into law

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – An historic, bipartisan bill to curtail the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine was signed into law by President Obama today, marking the first time Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum since the Nixon administration.

The Fair Sentencing Act, authored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), will reduce the current 100:1 sentencing disparity to 18:1.  The bill is cosponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Ranking Member Jeff Sessions and passed both the House and the Senate unanimously.

“We have talked about the need to address the crack -powder sentencing disparity for far too long. With the Fair Sentencing Act now the law of the land, we’ve finally addressed one of the greatest injustices in our war on drugs,” Durbin said. “Drug use is still a serious problem in America and we need tough legislation to combat it. But in addition to being tough, our drug laws must be smart and fair. This bipartisan bill is both.”

Under the previous law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine (roughly the weight of two sugar cubes) triggers a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, while trafficking 500 grams (approximately one pound) of powder cocaine triggers the same sentence.  The so-called 100:1 ratio had been in place since 1986.

The dramatically higher penalties for crack have disproportionately affected the African American community:  more than 80 percent of those convicted for federal crack offenses.

The Fair Sentencing Act, as introduced, would have completely eliminated the disparity, treating crack and powder cocaine equally.  However, in March, Senator Durbin and Chairman Leahy negotiated an agreement with Senators Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to achieve a unanimous committee vote. 

The compromise, passed by both the House and Senate, significantly increases fines for drug traffickers and mandates that the U.S. Sentencing Commission significantly increase enhancements for a number of aggravating factors. This tough new language would apply to all drug offenses and not just those involving crack or powder cocaine.

 This legislation also would eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine (the only mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of a drug by a first-time offender). 

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