WASHINGTON Congress on Wednesday changed a quarter-century-old law that has subjected tens of thousands of blacks 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 Barack 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 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 reduces that ratio to about 18-1.
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mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack, the first time since the Nixon administration that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence.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 would not apply retroactively.
For Congress to take a step toward saying we have made a mistake and this sentence is too severe ... is really remarkable, said Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project. The group in studies of sentencing practices has referred to crack cocaine mandates as a poster child for the injustices of mandatory sentencing.
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 proposed legislation would apply the five-year term to someone with 28 grams, or an ounce, of crack.
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 the U.S. Sentencing Commission 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.
She cited Sentencing Commission estimates that almost 3,000 people a year subjected to the mandatory sentence would be affected by the change. The average sentence in these cases would be reduced from 106 months to 79 months.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the main sponsor of the bill in the Senate with Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said last year close to 1,500 people were convicted for possession of somewhere between five and 25 grams of crack cocaine, subjecting them to mandatory minimum sentences.
About 80 percent of those convicted of crack cocaine offenses are black.
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 blacks serve almost as much time for drug offenses 58.7 months as whites do for violent offenses 61.7 months.
The Congressional Budget Office said the bill would save the government $42 million in five years because of the reduction in prison populations.
Durbin said he voted for the harsh sentences when he was a House member in 1986. When crack first appeared on the scene, there was near panic in the halls of Congress over the new cheap, addictive and destructive drug. It scared us to death. We overreacted.