Lawmakers today gave final approval to a bill that would reduce the long-standing disparity between federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine distribution.
The vote in the U.S. House of Representatives follows a debate that has raged since the 1980s. Critics have blasted the distinction between crack and cocaine sentencing — 5 grams of crack triggers a mandatory sentence of five years while it takes 500 grams of cocaine to trigger the same sentence. The disparity has had a disproportionate impact on African-American men, the critics say.
The 100-to-1 ratio would be reduced to 18-to-1 under the legislation, which raises the threshold to 28 grams of crack for a mandatory five-year sentence.
The Senate passed the legislation in March, so it now goes to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it.
Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), supporters of the legislation and the top senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised the vote. “These disproportionate punishments have had a disparate impact on minority communities. This is unjust and runs contrary to our fundamental principles of equal justice under law,” Leahy said in a statement.
In a separate statement, Sessions said the bill strikes a balance: “It was crucial that we achieve greater parity in sentencing while not impeding law enforcement’s ability to protect communities from the devastating violence associated with the sale and distribution of crack cocaine.”
Support was not unanimous, though. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that the legislation “could expose our neighborhoods to the same violence and addiction that caused Congress to act in the first place.” Crack cocaine, he added, “is associated with a greater degree of violence than most other drugs.”
The legislation makes other sentencing changes as well. It eliminates the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack, raises the fines for major drug trafficking, and increases sentences for those who use violence while trafficking drugs.