House passes bill to end crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) addresses reporters after a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting on Tuesday, September 28, 2021.
Greg Nash

The House passed legislation on Tuesday that would eliminate the federal disparity in prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses, in an effort to enact criminal justice reform on a bipartisan basis.

The bill, which lawmakers passed 361-66, is meant to address a gap that its proponents say has largely fallen on Black people and other people of color. 

The House passed the measure handily, but the vote divided Republicans. A majority of House Republicans voted for the bill with all Democrats, but the 66 votes in opposition all came from the GOP. 

Crack cocaine, which is typically smoked, tends to be less expensive than powder cocaine, which is snorted in through the nose.

The lower price of crack cocaine made it more easily accessible to people in lower-income communities, which subsequently meant that members of marginalized groups were more likely to face longer prison sentences compared to the lower ones for powder cocaine offenses.  

“The burden has disproportionately fallen on African American communities,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the House Democratic caucus chairman and chief author of the bill. 

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a law signed by then-President Reagan as part of the “War on Drugs,” established a five-year minimum sentence for possessing at least five grams of crack, while an individual would have to possess at least 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence.  

A 2010 law called the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the cocaine sentencing disparity for pending and future cases, but did not fully eliminate it. And a criminal justice reform bill enacted in 2018 under former President Trump allowed people convicted prior to passage of the 2010 law to seek resentencing. 

Under the bill the House passed on Tuesday, defendants who were previously convicted for crack cocaine offenses would also be allowed to petition for sentence reductions. 

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a former judge, said the measure was a “a great start toward getting the right thing done” as he recalled dealing with cocaine cases.

“Something I thought Texas did right was have a up to 12 months substance abuse felony punishment facility. Some thought it was strange that a strong conservative like myself used that as much as I did. But I saw this is so addictive, it needs a length of time to help people to change their lives for such a time that they’ve got a better chance of making it out, understanding just how addictive those substances are,” Gohmert said during House floor debate.

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where at least 10 Republicans would have to join with all Democrats to advance it in the evenly divided chamber. 

A companion bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) currently has five cosponsors, including three Republicans: Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.). 

Tuesday’s vote comes after lawmakers last week came up short on police reform, a top Democratic legislative priority to address racial injustice.

The House has twice passed police reform legislation that would ban chokeholds, overhaul qualified immunity and establish a national registry for police misconduct. But a group of lawmakers who attempted for months to negotiate a bicameral compromise — Booker, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) — acknowledged last week that the talks had collapsed.

Tags cocaine sentencing Cory Booker Crack cocaine Donald Trump Hakeem Jeffries Karen Bass Louie Gohmert Rand Paul Rob Portman Thom Tillis Tim Scott
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