Both conservative evangelicals and liberal mainline Protestant groups are applauding a new legislation that makes the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine possession more fair.
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, passed by the U.S. House last week, reduces the infamous 100-to-1 sentencing ratio for possession of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine to 18-to-1.
The current law mandates a minimum of five years in prison for simple possession of crack cocaine. Meanwhile, an amount of powder cocaine 100 times larger than crack cocaine would result in the same incarceration period.
“The legislation makes significant progress toward parity in criminal penalties for possession and use of crack and powder cocaine,” remarked Galen Carey, director of government affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals, in a statement Monday. “While not fully equalizing penalties for the two drugs, the Fair Sentencing Act reduces the disparity and will also reduce the cost to taxpayers of unnecessarily length incarceration.”
Crack and powder cocaine are the same drug, but crack is used more by African Americans while cocaine is used predominantly by whites and Hispanics.
African Americans make up 82.7 percent of crack cocaine convictions, according to 2007 data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Meanwhile, white and Hispanic defendants make up 71.4 percent of powder cocaine convictions.
Under the Act, the minimum amount of crack cocaine that would trigger a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence is 28 grams, up from five grams. A 10-year mandatory minimum sentence would be given to someone possessing at least 280 grams, up from 50 grams.
For powder cocaine, a minimum of 500 grams and five kilograms would result in a minimum of 5- and 10-year mandatory minimum sentences, respectively.
The bill marks the first time that Congress has repealed a mandatory drug sentence since the Nixon administration.
The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, chief executive of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, commented that the “uneven treatment” of people of color under the current crack-cocaine possession law has increased “cynicism” in the criminal justice system.
Likewise, Bishop Peggy Johnson of The United Methodist Church at the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference said the unfair sentencing for crack offenses “no doubt” has something to do with the disproportionate incarceration of people of color.
“Martin Luther King Jr. once said that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,’” Johnson said. “Today we have stepped closer to realizing fairness in our criminal justice system.”
Data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows most federal crack cocaine prosecutions have been against low-level dealers who receive harsher punishment than international powder cocaine traffickers because of the dramatic difference in the amount of powder cocaine required for lengthy imprisonment.
“We need to stop wasting precious federal investigators on neighborhood drug dealers when the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Justice Department should be going after higher-level traffickers,” said a letter in June endorsed by the NAE, Focus on the Family and Prison Fellowship, among others, to U.S. House leaders.
The new law, once enacted, would affect an estimated 3,000 cases annually, reduce sentences by an average of 27 months, and save $42 million over five years, according to estimates by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. It does not affect people who are already serving time for low-level crack cocaine offenses.
The bill now goes to the White House for President Obama’s signature.