America

House Votes To Narrow Crack, Powder Cocaine Penalties

GEORGE H.W. BUSH

President George H.W. Bush holds up a law-enforcement evidence bag of crack cocaine during a 1989 Oval Office address to the nation. DENNIS COOK/AP hide caption

itoggle caption DENNIS COOK/AP

One of the most widely acknowledged inequities in the federal criminal justice system — much higher sentences for those convicted of possessing crack cocaine compared with a like amount of powder cocaine — is about to change and for the better.

The House passed legislation to narrow the gap between sentences by voice vote. (That way no one lawmaker's recorded "yes" vote can be used against him by an opponent in a political ad bashing labeling him "soft on crime.")

With the Senate already passing a bill earlier this year, all that's needed now is President Barack Obama's signature. That's a foregone conclusion.

The discrepancy in the treatment of those caught with crack versus powder cocaine has long been the bane of African-Americans and civil-rights groups.

Relatively low-priced, crack became a scourge in low-income black communities in the 1980s. It wasn't uncommon as you walked in some neighborhoods to see empty crack vials strewn in your path on the sidewalk.

With urban residents complaining about the crime and violence that accompanied crack, which was thought to be more readily addictive, politicians and law enforcement got tough on those apprehended for crack-related crimes.

Unfortunately, the demographics of many of these neighborhoods meant those arrested, convicted and given lengthy mandatory prison terms were almost always black and Hispanic.

Meanwhile, more upscale powder cocaine was more upscale, favored by a wealthier and whiter customers. Often, powder cocaine sellers and users would get probation for amounts that would bring a prison sentence for

NPR's Carrie Johnson, who covers the Justice Department, wrote the following for her NPR.org story:

Members of Congress who voted for the change are correcting what they say was an overreaction when lawmakers passed tough criminal sentences for crack cocaine possession during an epidemic of drug violence in the 1980s. At the time, lawmakers thought the rock form of cocaine was more addictive and that people who used crack committed more violence. But critics began to debunk those theories.

South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn talked about what he called the panic of the '80s. "We now know there is little if any pharmacological distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Yet the punishment for these offenses remains radically different," Clyburn said.

Very different, said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD.

"Possessing an amount of crack equal to the weight of two pennies has resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of five years," Hoyer said. "In order to receive a similar sentence, possessing chemically similar powder cocaine, one would have to be carrying a hundred times as much cocaine."

One Voice In Opposition

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill during the House debate today. Recalling the events that led to passage of the 1986 legislation that toughened the penalties for possessing and distributing crack cocaine, Smith asked: "Why do we want to risk another surge of addiction and violence by reducing penalties? Why are we coddling some of the most dangerous drug traffickers in America?"

It's never easy, politically, to lower criminal sentences. But a compromise earlier this year between Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions finally got the ball rolling.

Their proposal, adopted today by the House, narrowed the gap between criminal penalties for crack and powder cocaine to 18 to 1 from the old 100 to 1 ratio that Hoyer cited.

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