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.
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 DurbinDick DurbinGOP eager to see Harry Reid go Republicans tie Trump's Defense pick to funding fight Lawmakers haggle over funding bill as shutdown nears MORE (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 LeahyPatrick LeahyThe Hill's 12:30 Report Passing US-Canada preclearance would improve security and economy GOP wants to move fast on Sessions MORE (D-Va.) struck the deal in March with Republican Sen. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsTaiwan lobby scores victory with Trump call Sharpton pressures Dems on Trump nominees Trump allies warn: No compromise on immigration MORE (Ala.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamEx-Im Bank fails to get quorum reprieve in stopgap spending bill Overnight Defense: Funding bill would ease Trump Defense pick's confirmation | Obama delivers final security speech Congress wants hearing on Pentagon wasteful spending charges MORE (S.C.), Tom CoburnTom CoburnWill Trump back women’s museum? Don't roll back ban on earmarks Ryan calls out GOP in anti-poverty fight MORE (Okla.) and Orrin HatchOrrin HatchChairman: Trump can play ‘key role’ in tax reform push The Hill's 12:30 Report Senate GOP: National museum should include Clarence Thomas MORE (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 ScottBobby ScottDems press Trump to keep Obama overtime rule Ex-Black Caucus chair backs Pelosi challenger Effort to allow federal government to discriminate in the name of religion must not prevail MORE (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