Congress passes bill to reduce disparity in crack, powder cocaine sentencing

By Jim Abrams
Thursday, July 29, 2010; A09

Congress on Wednesday changed a 25-year-old law that has subjected tens of thousands of African Americans to long prison terms for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient treatment to those, mainly whites, caught with the powder form of the drug.

The House, by voice vote, approved a bill reducing the disparities between mandatory crack and powder cocaine sentences, sending the measure to President Obama for his signature. During his presidential campaign, Obama said that the wide gap in sentencing "cannot be justified and should be eliminated." The Senate passed the bill in March.

The measure changes a 1986 law, enacted at a time when crack cocaine use was rampant and considered a particularly violent drug. Under the law, a person convicted of crack cocaine possession got the same mandatory prison term as someone with 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine. The new legislation reduces that ratio to about 18 to 1.

The bill also eliminates the five-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack, the first time since the Nixon administration that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence. It does not apply retroactively.

Eighty percent of those convicted of crack cocaine offenses are black.

Under current law, possession of five grams of crack triggers a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence. The same mandatory sentence applies to a person convicted of trafficking 500 grams of powder cocaine.

The new legislation will apply the five-year term to someone with 28 grams, or an ounce, of crack.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the main sponsor of the bill in the Senate with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), said nearly 1,500 people were convicted last year for possession of five to 25 grams of crack cocaine, subjecting them to mandatory minimum sentences.

In the 2008 campaign, Obama said the sentencing disparity "has disproportionately filled our prisons with young black and Latino drug users." He cited figures that African Americans serve almost as much time for drug offenses -- 58.7 months -- as whites do for violent offenses -- 61.7 months.

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill, saying that the 1986 law was enacted as the crack cocaine epidemic brought a sharp spike in violence to minority communities and that it would be a mistake to change it.

"Why do we want to risk another surge of addiction and violence by reducing penalties?" he asked. "Why are we coddling some of the most dangerous drug traffickers in America?"

-- Associated Press

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