Legislation Fixing Cocaine Sentencing Disparity Applauded by Faith Leaders

Leaders in the faith community have applauded Congress' passage of legislation that would reduce sentencing disproportions for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

The House of Representatives passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 on Wednesday, effectively overturning the disparities established under a 1986 law that punished crack offenders 100 times more than powder cocaine ones.

Under the new law, the disparity will be reduced to an 18:1 ratio, and the minimum five-year prison sentence for offenders caught with 5 grams of crack will be applied to those found with 28 grams.

The original law was established at a time when crack was seen as uniquely addictive and a threat to inner cities, although faith leaders have said more injustice has come from the measure than good.

The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said that the impacts of the original law were "devastating," especially for minority communities.

"The uneven treatment of communities of color also increases the cynicism with which many view the criminal justice system," Kinnamon said. "As a result, any intended deterrent effect diminishes."

According to Human Rights Watch, African Americans constituted 80 percent of federal crack cocaine convictions in 2008 despite the fact that only 27 percent of crack cocaine users are black and 65 percent are white. Average prison terms for black crack offenders compared to whites was found to be 111.5 months to 73.5 months.

United Methodist Bishop Peggy Johnson of Pennsylvania, who describes herself as "deeply committed to fairness in our criminal justice system," said the new law is a victory towards achieving criminal justice fairness across races.

"Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 'the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.' Today we have stepped closer to realizing fairness in our criminal justice system."

Galen Carey, director of Government Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals said the act represents "significant progress," although he would have like to have seen the penalty ratio equalized.

"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 lengthy incarceration," he said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that Democrats were originally working towards a 1:1 penalty ratio but the measure became stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"One-to-one is the right way to go, but we all came to learn that if you stick with that position, you'll get nothing, so what can you achieve? Well, we achieved some progress," Durbin told the Hill.

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