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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

For more than a decade, this statistic has been cited as evidence that rich and poor are treated differently by the justice system. Sentences for possessing crack cocaine are 100 times heavier than sentences for powder cocaine. Now, the Senate has passed a bill changing that. NPR's Ari Shapiro has the story.

ARI SHAPIRO: The debate about drug sentencing is full of ratios. Here's what the numbers mean in real world terms.

Ms. CYNTHIA ORR (President, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers): The penalty for possession of a saccharin package worth of crack cocaine is a five-year mandatory minimum.

SHAPIRO: Cynthia Orr is president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Ms. ORR: And it goes up from there astronomically to where you're at a life sentence before you can bat an eye with crack cocaine. Whereas you have to have 5 kilos of powder cocaine, so it's literally 100 times more severe penalty for the same amount of drug.

SHAPIRO: Congress enacted these rules in the early 1990s, when crack was ravaging urban communities. In those days, Reggie Walton worked on drug policy in the first Bush administration. Back then he supported the sentencing disparity. Today, he's a federal judge in Washington and he feels differently.

Judge REGGIE WALTON (U.S. District Court, Washington, D.C.): We believed it was a different chemical substance. We now know that's not the case. The reality is that crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same chemical substance.

SHAPIRO: Walton has testified before Congress on behalf of the Judicial Conference on this issue. He says the sentencing disparity has had a huge impact on people of color.

Judge WALTON: You have a large percentage of people who are either Latino or African-American who are being locked up for a significant period of time for a crack cocaine convictions.

SHAPIRO: That's partly because crack is much cheaper than powder. Judge Walton believes there will still be objections to the Senate bill from people who think crack and powder should be treated the same. This bill punishes crack users 18 times more heavily than powder cocaine user.

Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys' Association thinks that's the right balance.

Mr. SCOTT BURNS (Executive director, National District Attorneys' Association): The political reality is there was going to be a reduction, and as opposed to one-to-one, the district attorneys fully support the 18-to-one disparity.

SHAPIRO: Now that the Senate has passed this bill, the House has to decide what to do. A House committee has already approved a bill that treats crack and powder identically. The full House could adopt the Senate's 18-to-one sentencing ratio or the House could push for its own bill with the one-to-one ratio.

Cynthia Orr, of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says of course she would prefer if crack were not treated 18 times more seriously than powder.

Ms. ORR: So, yes, there's a great frustration. But it's 80 percent less great a frustration as it has been in the past. It's such an important move and Im not going to diminish it in any way.

SHAPIRO: Orr says if the Senate bill becomes law, she will consider that a great day.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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