"Fair Sentencing" Laws Eliminate Mandatory Minimum Sentences, Sentencing Disparities for Certain Drug Offenses
Legislation signed into law last fall in California eliminates sentencing disparities for drug offenses involving powder and crack cocaine, a relic of 1980s federal anti-drug policy that is being slowly rolled back. In 1986, Congress imposed considerably harsher penalties for drug offenses involving cocaine base, commonly known as crack cocaine, than for offenses involving cocaine hydrochloride, or powder cocaine. Some states also passed laws imposing disparate sentences. Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced but did not eliminate the sentencing disparity between the two drugs. Subsequent legislation has made additional improvements to the sentencing system. California's new law eliminates the disparity entirely.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established a "100 to 1" sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine. Possession of five grams, or roughly one-fifth of an ounce, of crack cocaine carried a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years without parole. The same sentence applied to possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine, equal to slightly over one pound. The same ratio applied to larger amounts of both substances. Whatever Congress' intent in passing this law, it resulted in a substantial racial disparities in enforcement, along with numerous other injustices.
In 2010, Congress addressed the issue by passing the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. The threshold amount of powder cocaine required for a federal felony possession charge remained 500 grams, while the amount of crack cocaine was increased from five to 28 grams. This may still seem like a dramatic difference, but it is a vast improvement over the 1986 law. The bill also eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for first-time offenses involving possession of small amounts of crack cocaine. A bill that would further reduce the sentencing disparity, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, did not pass in the last Congressional session.