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Gap In Federal Cocaine Sentences To Narrow

The House voted Wednesday to reduce the disparity in prison sentences for people caught with crack cocaine versus those who possess the drug in powder form.

The action -- done by voice vote, not a roll call -- culminates nearly 25 years of lobbying by civil rights groups who say the sentences disproportionately hurt minorities. The Senate passed the legislation in March. President Obama is expected to sign it into law.

Members of Congress who voted for the change are correcting what they say was an overreaction when lawmakers passed tough criminal sentences for crack cocaine possession during an epidemic of drug violence in the 1980s. At the time, lawmakers thought the rock form of cocaine was more addictive and that people who used crack committed more violence. But critics began to debunk those theories.

South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn talked about what he called the panic of the '80s. "We now know there is little if any pharmacological distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Yet the punishment for these offenses remains radically different," Clyburn said.

Very different, said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

"Possessing an amount of crack equal to the weight of two pennies has resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of five years," Hoyer said. "In order to receive a similar sentence, possessing chemically similar powder cocaine, one would have to be carrying a hundred times as much cocaine."

One Voice In Opposition

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill during the House debate today. Recalling the events that led to passage of the 1986 legislation that toughened the penalties for possessing and distributing crack cocaine, Smith asked: "Why do we want to risk another surge of addiction and violence by reducing penalties? Why are we coddling some of the most dangerous drug traffickers in America?"

It's never easy, politically, to lower criminal sentences. But a compromise earlier this year between Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions finally got the ball rolling.

Their proposal, adopted today by the House, narrowed the gap between criminal penalties for crack and powder cocaine to 18 to 1 from the old 100 to 1 ratio that Hoyer cited.

And, for the first time, Congress also moved to get rid of a mandatory minimum sentence for crack possession.

Durbin says he's been troubled that the system unfairly punishes blacks who are convicted far more often of crack cocaine crimes. "Today, I think we've added some justice to a system that had been unjust for too long," Durbin said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Sentencing Project (a national organization that promotes "reforms in sentencing law ... and alternatives to incarceration") and the Congressional Black Caucus say the crack cocaine sentences disproportionately hurt minorities, who are convicted in greater numbers of possessing rock cocaine. And law enforcement officials including former Bush administration Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson argued the tough crack cocaine sentences prompted uneasiness and suspicion among Africa- Americans whose help the police need.

Neither Side Got All It Wanted

Reformers hoped to see penalties for crack cocaine lowered to the same sentences as powder cocaine. They also urged Congress to make the changes retroactive -- to apply to thousands of offenders already serving time behind bars. But the legislation will have no impact on people who've already been convicted.

Julie Stewart has been pressing Congress to act for decades. She's president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, another national organization that says it advocates for "fair and proportionate sentencing laws."

"No, this bill does not give us everything we wanted," Stewart said. "It's not retroactive. That's my biggest regret about it. But I also see this as a two-step process. And today we got the first step. And we will go forward for the second step before the year is out."

It's an open question whether she'll fulfill all of those goals.

But analysts say the change as passed today will still affect about 3,000 people convicted of possessing crack cocaine each year. And it will reduce their sentences by just over two years, on average.

The legislation next moves to the White House, where it's likely to get a warm reception. Obama and Vice President Biden pledged to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine prison sentences during the 2008 campaign.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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