02-19-2017  10:57 am      •     

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Legislation approved by the Senate Wednesday would significantly reduce the disparity in sentences handed out to those convicted of crack and powder cocaine.
Currently, a person convicted of crack cocaine possession gets the same mandatory jail time as someone with 100 times the same quantity of powder cocaine. That 100-1 ratio has been particularly hard on the black community, where convictions on federal crack laws are more prevalent.
Under the measure, approved by a voice vote, the ratio would be reduced to 18-1.
Sen. Dick Durbin who worked out the legislation with Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans, said he had initially wanted a straight 1-to-1 ratio, but that the final product was a good bipartisan compromise.
"If this bill is enacted into law, it will immediately ensure that every year, thousands of people are treated more fairly in our criminal justice system," he said.
He said the bill also would mark the first time since 1970 that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence.
Under current law, possession of five grams of crack cocaine triggers a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence. The same mandatory sentence is handed down to a person convicted of trafficking 500 grams of powder cocaine.
Durbin said that in 1986, when he was a member of the House, he supported creation of this 100-1 ratio. "Crack cocaine had just appeared on the scene, and it scared us because it was cheap, addictive. We thought it was more dangerous than many narcotics."
But he cited figures saying that while blacks make up 30 percent of crack users, they comprise more than 80 percent of those convicted of federal crack offenses. "Law enforcement experts say that the crack-powder disparity undermines trust in the criminal justice system, especially in the African-American community."
Attorney General Eric Holder praised the Senate Judiciary Committee's approval of the bill last week. "There is no law enforcement or sentencing rational for the current disparity between crack and cocaine powder offenses, and I have strongly supported eliminating it to ensure our sentencing laws are tough, predictable and fair."
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said his group had been working two decades to eliminate the sentencing disparity and was disappointed that was not accomplished in the bill. He said the bill "represents progress but not the end of the fight."
Under the bill, possession of 28 grams of crack would trigger the five-year mandatory sentence. The measure also increases fines for drug traffickers.
A companion bill is pending in the House.

 


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All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. 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"I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. 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Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. 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