Christopher Weber at Politics Daily:
Congress passed a bill Wednesday that would narrow the disparity between mandatory sentences for crack and powder cocaine possession, changing a 24-year-old law that critics said unfairly subjected blacks to longer prison terms than whites.
The measure was approved by voice vote in the House and sent to President Obama, who is expected to sign it into law, The Associated Press reported. The bill made it through the Senate in March.
The legislation would overhaul a 1986 law that mandated a person convicted of crack cocaine possession get the same mandatory prison term as someone with 100 times the same amount of cocaine in powder form. The bill passed Wednesday reduces that ratio to about 18-1, the AP said.
Cord Jefferson at The Root:
Twenty-four years ago, at the height of America’s crack epidemic, Congress enacted legislation that saw persons convicted of possessing crack receive prison sentences equal to persons possessing 100 times that amount in powder cocaine. This was problematic for many reasons, the most glaring being that African Americans possessing crack went to jail in droves while white defendants, who more often dabbled in expensive powder cocaine, escaped without prison bids. After the Senate passed the bill in March, Attorney General Eric Holder commented, “There is no law enforcement or sentencing rationale for the current disparity between crack and cocaine powder offenses.”
Unfortunately, today’s vote makes the ratio between crack and powder cocaine sentences 18-to-1—still not perfectly equal. But it’s a step, and a bipartisan one at that. Six Republicans co-sponsored the bill, including Lindsay Graham and Orrin Hatch.
Jacob Sullum at Reason:
Under current law, five grams of crack triggers the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder; likewise, 50 grams of crack triggers the same 10-year mandatory minimum sentence as five kilograms of powder. The bill passed today, which President Obama is expected to sign soon, will reduce those 100-to-1 ratios by 82 percent. From now on, a drug offender will need only 18 times as much powder to get the same sentence he would get for crack. That’s still crazy, but substantially less so. In addition to reducing the sentencing disparity, the bill abolishes the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack (as opposed to possession with intent to distribute), another way in which federal law treats smokable cocaine with unusual severity. Families Against Mandatory Minimums says this is “the first time that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum drug sentence since the Nixon administration.”
This time, the bill had lots of conservative Republican support, but the ranking Republican on House Judiciary demonstrated why it’s taken more than 20 years to change the law by pulling out the usual demoagogic warnings about rampant drug abuse. The Fraternal Order of Police also weighed in on the wrong side.
Sens. Dick Durbin and Jeff Sessions and Rep. Bobby Scott all deserve congratulations, though I think an administrative fix – regulating the conditions under which the mandatory could be invoked by federal prosecutors so that only worthwhile cases could be brought – would have been cleaner and quicker.
This is one more indication that at least marginally sensible drug policy is now politically discusable.
David Dayen at Firedoglake:
I agree entirely with Adam Serwer when he says that this passage makes the crack disparity “only one fifth as racist as it used to be.” But you know what we don’t do a lot of in this country? Reduce sentences. Check out the makeup of the world’s largest prison population and you’ll see what I mean. “Law ‘n’ Order” and “Tough on Crime” remain shibboleths used by politicians to hammer away at criminal sentencing reformists. So ANY change in a positive direction takes a ridiculous amount of work and struggle. This is a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has a backgrounder on the law change. And the Houston Chronicle spoke out in a very good editorial today. Now, the next step is to eliminate this disparity entirely, so we actually have equal justice under the law.
Don’t get me wrong: I would not recommend crack cocaine usage and there were (and are) still social costs of some significance associated with its usage. The problem with the reaction in the 1980s was that, like much of our drug laws, we overreact and make rules based on fear and the drama of the moment rather than rational consideration of the problem. We paint each new drug as practically the end of the world and react accordingly (the current drug of fear is meth-in the past it was heroin). Again: all of these are substances that cause substantial harm, but we tend to lack a sense of proportion in dealing with them.