Congress Seeks To Narrow Gap in Cocaine Sentences

Associated Press + More

WASHINGTON — Congress is reducing sentencing differences between crack and powder cocaine convictions that sent tens of thousands of blacks to prison while often letting whites skate for possessing the same amount of the drug in powder form.

Lawmakers created the disparity 24 years ago when crack appeared on the scene as a cheap but addictive drug.

The House planned to vote Wednesday on the measure that would change the 1986 law under which a person convicted of crack cocaine possession gets the same mandatory prison term as someone with 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine. The legislation would reduce that ratio to about 18-1.

The Senate has passed the legislation. House approval would send it to President Barack Obama.

"There is no law enforcement or sentencing rationale for the current disparity between crack and cocaine powder offenses," Attorney General Eric Holder said when the Senate acted in March.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sponsor of the Senate bill, said that while blacks make up 30 percent of crack users, they account for more than 80 percent of those convicted of federal crack offenses. [See who donates the most money to Durbin.]

Under current law, possession of 5 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 proposed legislation would apply the five-year term to someone with 28 grams, or an ounce, of crack. It would be the first time in 40 years that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence.

Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said 28 grams is about what the average crack dealer might carry around.

She said politicians and sentencing commissions have for years acknowledged the unfairness of the system, "but no one wanted to look soft on crime." The legislative change, she said, is "much more about being smart on crime."