Something of an improvement – but since the two are chemically identical, any disparity is completely political.
Washington…Addressing what both Democrats andRepublicans agreed was a quarter-century old injustice in drug sentencing, Congress gave final approval Wednesday to a bill reducing the penalty for crack cocaine offenders.
The legislation, which was welcomed by the Obamaadministration, reduces the disparities between sentences for powdered cocaine and crack cocaine based on the heavier weight of crack, which is often sold in crystals. Crack cocaine is used disproportionately by blacks, leading to complaints of discrimination.
“By sending the bill to the President, the House has taken an important step toward more just sentencing policies while enhancing the ability of law enforcement officials to protect our communities from violent and dangerous drug traffickers,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. The White House said Obama would sign the bill.
In an effort to stem rampant crack cocaine use, a law was passed in 1986 that had the effect of giving crack cocaine offenders the same jail sentence as a someone who possessed 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine. The bill narrows that ratio to 18 to one and eradicates the mandatory five-year jail sentence for first-time offenders charged with possessing five grams of crack cocaine.
Under the new bill, a person in possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine would trigger that five-year jail sentence, said Julie Stewart, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
“This is certainly a victory,” said Stewart. “Earlier attempts to correct the stiff sentences for crack cocaine defendants have failed, so this is the first time there has been bipartisan support for significant reform to crack penalties.”
The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who teamed up with colleague Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) to pass the legislation unanimously through the Senate in March. Republican senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina were also vocal supporters of the bill.
That same bipartisan support was echoed in the House, with only Texas representative Lamar Smith voicing opposition during the voice vote Wednesday.
“Why are we coddling some of the most dangerous drug traffickers in America?” said Smith, who argued that passing the bill could increase drug violence to the same levels as the 1980s, when crack cocaine use was rife.
But some said the legislation does not go far enough because it still treats crack and powder cocaine differently.
“It ultimately came down to politics as opposed to research on what would work best,” said Matt Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. “And many organizations and many members of Congress had been pushing for a 1 to 1 ratio, but that was just not going to happen this year.”