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Congress has voted to reduce the disparity in criminal penalties for people caught with crack versus powder cocaine. The vote ends more than two decades of campaigning by civil rights groups and others who say the harsh prison sentences disproportionately hurt minorities.

NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Congress passed tough sentences for crack cocaine possession in 1986, as the drug was devastating urban communities. At the time, lawmakers thought the rock form of cocaine was more addictive, and that people who used crack committed more violence. But in the quarter-century since then, critics began to debunk those theories.

Here's South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn, talking about what he called the panic of the 1980s.

Representative JAMES CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): We now know that there's little or no pharmacological distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Yet the punishment for these offenses remains radically different.

JOHNSON: Very different, says House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.

Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; House Majority Leader): Possessing an amount of crack equal to the weight of two pennies has resulted in a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. In order to receive a similar sentence for possessing chemically similar powder cocaine, one would have to be carrying a hundred times as much cocaine.

JOHNSON: It's never easy to lower criminal sentences. But a compromise between Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Alabama Republican 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 that old, 100-to-1 ratio. And for the first time, Congress also moved to get rid of a mandatory minimum sentence for crack possession.

Durbin says he's been troubled that the system unfairly punishes blacks, who are convicted far more often of crack cocaine crimes.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Today, I think we've added some justice to a system that had been unjust for too long.

JOHNSON: Neither side got exactly what it wanted. Reformers hoped to see penalties for crack cocaine lowered to the same sentences as powder cocaine. They also urged Congress to make the changes retroactive, to apply to thousands of offenders already serving time behind bars. But the legislation will have no impact on people who've already been convicted.

Julie Stewart has been pressing Congress to act for decades. She's president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Ms. JULIE STEWART (President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums): No, this bill does not give us everything we wanted. It's not retroactive; that's my biggest regret about it. But I also see this as a two-step process. And today, we got the first step. And we will go forward for the second step before the year is out.

JOHNSON: It's an open question whether she'll fulfill all of those goals. But analysts say the changes passed today will still affect about 3,000 people convicted of possessing crack cocaine each year. And it will reduce sentences by just over two years, on average.

The legislation next moves to the White House, where it's likely to get a warm reception. President Obama and Vice President Biden pledged to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine prison sentences during the 2008 campaign. It's one of the few criminal justice promises they've been able to keep at a time when Congress is struggling with a busy agenda.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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