Group rallies in support of Fair Sentencing Act changes - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Group rallies in support of Fair Sentencing Act changes

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -

The US Sentencing Commission has approved an amendment to the Fair Sentencing Act.  That law, passed last year, reduces the sentences for those convicted on certain federal drug charges. The Amendment also calls for reducing sentences of convicted drug offenders already in prison.

So why were there concerns about these drug convictions in the first place?

Before the Fair Sentencing Act was passed last year, it's estimated that 100 times more people were sent to prison on charges relating to the use of crack cocaine as opposed to powder cocaine offenders.  Since the law passed, the disparity has dropped to 18 to 1.  But some allege that disparity still puts more African Americans behind bars.  And groups like the Black Hawk County NAACP hope Thursday's action by the sentencing commission will help even out the punishments doled out to drug offenders.

"As the saying goes, "Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize!" one attending the rally said.

And that's just what the Black Hawk County NAACP and their supporters believe they accomplished by rallying around the courthouse in Waterloo Thursday.  The group supports the Fair Sentencing Act and extending its benefits to those currently behind bars by reducing sentences of those convicted on crack cocaine offenses.  That extension was approved by the US Sentencing Commission just as the rally was wrapping up.

"There won't be any real justice until there's fairness across the board," said Rev. Abraham Funchess with the Waterloo Human Rights Commission and NAACP.

And the group believes extending the Fair Sentencing Act is a start because it feels that historically, laws that directed harsher sentences for crack cocaine users have kept a disproportionate number of minorities in prison, since crack cocaine is often their drug of choice.

"The disparity makes no sense in light of the fact the substances we're talking about are pharmalogically the same," Funchess said.

And now it appears federal lawmakers are working to correct that disparity by reducing the mandatory sentences handed down to drug offenders and allowing convicted offenders earlier release.  That change could impact more than 12,000 offenders and result in a $200 million cost savings by keeping fewer drug offenders behind bars.

Community organizers say the fight to end sentencing disparities is far from over.  They hope to see reform of all sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenders and more options for first-time drug offenders to get treatment.

The US Sentencing Commission has recommended the extension of the Fair Sentencing Act, aimed at reducing prison terms for crack cocaine offenders, take effect November 1. 

But that extension will take Congressional approval and signature by the president to become law.

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