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WASHINGTON (RNS) U.S. religious leaders are applauding Congress’
approval of legislation that reduces the disparity of jail time between crack and powder cocaine offenses.
After passing the Senate in March, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 was approved by the House on Wednesday (July 28). The bill now goes to President Obama for his signature.
The bill amends the original 1986 law that was passed at a time of high crack use in the U.S. Under that law, individuals received the same sentence for possessing crack cocaine as someone with 100 times the same amount in powder form. The revamped law raises the minimum quantity of crack cocaine that triggers a mandatory minimum sentence.
The five-year minimum mandatory sentence is now applied to possession of 28 grams of crack rather than 5 grams; 280 grams, instead of 50 grams, triggers a minimum 10-year conviction.
Gone as well is the mandatory minimum for simple possession of crack cocaine.
According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the bill could lead to a prison population reduction of about 3,800 within 10 years. The bill will not, however, retroactively affect people currently incarcerated for low-level offenses.
“It makes significant progress toward parity in criminal penalties for possession and use of crack and powder cocaine,” said Galen Carey, director of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals.
Carey and others said the new law will mitigate a ballooning prison population and reduce injustices to African-Americans. Crack used to be more prevalent in the inner cities, with blacks receiving longer sentences than whites, who preferred the powder.
The uneven treatment of racial communities “increases the cynicism with which many view the criminal justice system,” said the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, chief executive of the National Council of Churches.
The inequity left churches and other faith communities to contend with children who were left parentless for long periods of time. Instead of targeting high-level drug kingpins, church leaders say tax dollars were spent pursuing low-level offenders, many of whom attend their churches.
“Today we have stepped closer to realizing fairness in our criminal justice system,” said United Methodist Bishop Peggy Johnson of Eastern Pennsylvania.
— Alfredo Garcia
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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