Congress passes bill on cocaine sentencing law disparities

Congress on Wednesday passed legislation that will reduce disparities in federal cocaine sentencing laws.

The bill cleared after House Democrats, who had previously criticized the Senate-passed version, agreed to move the upper chamber’s version. It reduces sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.

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Current law stipulates that an individual convicted of crack cocaine possession gets the same mandatory prison term as a person with 100 times the same amount of cocaine in powder form.

President Obama is expected to sign the bill this week.

Disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing laws have existed since 1986.

An author of the legislation, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), said Congress “overreacted when it established [crime] laws in the mid-1980s.

“A great injustice was done to a number of people who were sentenced to unnecessarily high sentences and were incarcerated for many, many years,” he said.

Durbin and other Democrats said their original goal was to establish a 1:1 sentencing ratio, but that plan stayed stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“One-to-one is the right way to go, but we all came to learn that if you stick with that position, you’ll get nothing, so what can you achieve? Well, we achieved some progress,” Durbin said.

Durbin and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Va.) struck the deal in March with Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah). The negotiations yielded a unanimous committee vote.

Sessions, a former assistant U.S. attorney and U.S. attorney, said, “I believe a sentence that’s imposed should be justified by logic, science, reason and common sense. And I don’t think these sentences were, and it was time to fix it.”

House Majority Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) cited studies showing the disparity disproportionately affects African-Americans.

“Although the majority of crack offenders are white, 80 percent of convictions fall on the shoulders of African Americans. A law that reflects such a high degree of discriminatory application needs to be fixed," Clyburn said.

“It is significant progress towards the legislation we are seeking,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the chief sponsor of the legislation in the House, said. “When the kingpin has the drug it’s powder. When the guy on the street converts it to crack, it’s him that gets the draconian penalty. The kingpin gets a relatively lighter sentence. This measure is not all that anybody wanted, but it is a major step in the right direction.”

"Although I am disappointed that this measure does not entirely eliminate the disparity I want to commend Sens. Durbin, Sessions and Coburn for crafting a very significant compromise," Clyburn said on the House floor as the measure was debated.

“In the mid-1980’s crack cocaine gained a reputation as a violence-inducing drug plaguing our inner cities. Under this perception sentencing guidelines were established assigning 5 grams of crack cocaine the same 5-year minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine," Clyburn later said in a statement.

The bill passed the House by voice vote, but Judiciary Committee ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas) lambasted the legislation on Wednesday: “Why would we want to reduce the penalties for crack cocaine trafficking and invite a return to a time when cocaine ravaged our communities, especially minority communities? I cannot support legislation that might enable the violent and devastating crack cocaine epidemic of the past to become a clear and present danger.”

Jordy Yager contributed to this article