Congress Approves Crack Sentencing Reform Bill

Today the House passed a bill, already unanimously approved by the Senate, that sharply reduces the unjust, irrational sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and cocaine powder that was established more than two decades ago. 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 Families Against Mandatory Minimums says this is "the first time that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum drug sentence since the Nixon administration." FAMM President Julie Stewart adds:

For those of us who have been pushing for reform for nearly 20 years, today's vote is phenomenal. To see members of Congress come together on such a historically partisan issue like this during an election year is heartening.

The 100-to-1 disparity was an ugly stain on the criminal justice system....I am hopeful that the forces of reason and compassion that carried the day today will prevail again soon to apply the new law retroactively to help those already in prison for crack cocaine offenses.

Yesterday the House approved a bill to create a National Criminal Justice Commission, an idea championed by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.). The commission, charged with undertaking "a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system" and making "reform recommendations," could become a vehicle for further changes in drug policy. Webb, whose bill has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been notably critical of the war on drugs.

Previous Reason coverage of crack sentences here.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I've smoked crack. That is some shitty high.

  • ||

    As have I. It's better than snorting PCP.

    Standard Libertaraian Disclaimer - As long as you don't harm others, whatever floats your boat.

  • Coeus||

    You get much better results when you cook your own from powder (just make sure it hasn't been stepped on too many times).

  • Hobie Hanson||

    Take that, doubters. Obama is the most reasonable president on drug policy since Richard Nixon. So, shut your pieholes.

  • ||

    Take care of THIS.

  • Zeb||

    Being the most reasonable president on drug policy since Richard Nixon still leaves a lot of room to be absolutely fucking horrible on drug policy. This makes it slightly less horrible, but still horrible.

  • ||

    Pretty easy to sign off on a bill that unanimously passed. Color me unimpressed.

  • ||

    Since Reason is happy, I take it that the bill increases the amount of crack required to get a given penalty, rather than reducing the amount of cocaine. Is that accurate?

  • Brett L||

    They aren't gonna unanimously vote to put more white people in prison, so... yeah.

  • Coeus||

    Sorry, pulling the evil white man card on this one makes you look like a dumbass. The disparity in sentencing was proposed and lobbied for by the CBC in the first damn place. Those congresscritters are evil because the think they know what's best for you, not because they happen to be a particular color.

  • Old hand||

    Friend, you got your facts wrong. The proposal for the mandatory minimums came from the Republican members of the House Crime Subcommittee, led by then Rep. Bill McCollum (R-FL). The disparity was a complete accident -- the numbers had nothing to do with the drugs per se, they had to do with quantities Congress believed indicated where a trafficker was in the distribution pipeline. The House version had 20 grams of crack to 500 grams of powder. The Senate, with Judiciary led by Strom Thurmond and Joe Biden, dropped the crack to 5 grams. That's what led to the 100-to-1. It was not the Congressional Black Caucus!

  • Coeus||

    I looked it up again and it appears that some members of the CBC actually pushed for a larger disparity than the one that got passed (but they lobbied for all of them). So you're right, I'll fix it.

    The A disparity in sentencing was proposed and lobbied for by the CBC in the first damn place.

    Better?

  • Markoff Chaney||

    Oh, grow up, they have seen how it really works when the rubber meets the road, and it's a fucking disaster. Regardless of who did what when the mandatory minimums were passed (and the ones that are currently in place technically did NOT come from the CBC, though they did advocate harsh mandatory minimums at other times; the ones that actually into law came from a Republican committee, I forget which one, but it wasn't any of the CBC's versions that made it into law), actual enforcement of these minimums has been shown to consistently favor putting people of color in prison and letting white offenders off the hook or get a comparative slap on the wrist, just like Brett L was talking about in his other comment below. African Americans serve almost as much time in federal prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months), largely due to sentencing laws such as the 100-to-1 crack-powder cocaine disparity. Do you get it now? It doesn't matter who supported it then. Crack was like a witch hunt then and everyone was trying to prove they could be "tough on crime". But having seen the destruction wreaked on their community, the CBC has now correctly come around to correcting what has been a tremendous injustice from the start, and has been pushing for this particular change for a decade. Now if we could only get Congress to make drug policy based on science instead of hysteria!

  • Brett L||

    Its not about the evil white man, but the drug laws always tilt one way. I grew up in the Houston suburbs where my friends who got popped for possession or paraphernalia got their adjudication deferred. I doubt teenagers in the Fifth Ward were being given the same courtesy. We happened to be 85% white, they happened to be 75% black. You can believe whatever you want. I believe that -- intentionally or not -- drug enforcement is horribly discriminatory both racially and socioeconomically. So yeah, I'll stand behind my statement.

  • Coeus||

    What does any of that have to do with what you said earlier? I'll stand behind my statement. You look like a dumbass.

  • ||

    Well Obama and the Democratic Congress have finally done a good thing. It only cost us a couple of trillion dollars and them fucking up our health care system. But they did do something good. And this is one thing that would not have happened had the Republicans won.

  • waffles||

    John, you are absolutely correct. This would never have happened with Republicans.

  • Jason||

    Unless George W Bush were caught with a few hits of crack.

  • ||

    I think a unanimous vote in the Senate undermines your thesis.

  • ||

    It was unanimous? Wow. I stand corrected.

  • ||

    There are a lot of bills that people won't publicly oppose, but will work behind the scenes to water down, etc. The bill somewhat reforming asset forfeiture from back in the late '90s is an example.

    Still, that this was approved in a voice vote unanimously in both houses indicates that the politicians didn't think that the political edge was to be gained opposing this.

  • ||

    These days you can't even get a unanimous vote on resolutions honouring the Palookaville State Palookers for winning the NAIA championship for palookaball (I read a wonderfully whining article on that subject the other day.) So when both houses pass something like this without a peep, it's fair to say that the political winds have shifted so far that it's not a partisan issue any more.

    (By the way, the FAMM president is smoking crack herself if she thinks drug sentencing is a "partisan issue" - the "tough on crime" crap has always been an enthusiastically bipartisan endeavour.)

  • Old hand||

    It was a voice vote. No votes were recorded. Looking at the Congressional Record, March 17, 2010, page S 1680 et seq., not one Republican Senator spoke in favor of the bill. We can call it unanimous because there was no vocal opposition.

  • Zeb||

    I guess this is good. But only in the sense that the law is very slightly less horrible now.
    The fact that possession of drugs of any kind can lead to any criminal sanctions of any kind is an ugly stain on the criminal justice system.

  • ||

    Yeah. It just means that black people will only go to jail for half of their lives like decent white people rather than all of their lives.

    Granted it isn't much. But it is something.

  • ¢||

    the bill also requires the sentencing commission to significantly increase penalties for drug violations involving violence.

    Resisting arrest is felony violence. Guess what's gonna happen.

  • ||

    to apply the new law retroactively to help those already in prison for crack cocaine offenses

    Is there any serious talk of this happening? Because that would be pretty awesome.

  • ||

    What, Obama use his power to pardon or commute sentences? It would be a first (sadly.)

  • ||

    People demanding drug laws must be smoking crack. What meddling.

  • LarryA||

    The commission, charged with undertaking "a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system" and making "reform recommendations,"...

    Be afraid. Be very afraid.

  • Emily Litella||

    What's all this I hear about reforming someone's crack?

  • ||

    Yesterday the House approved a bill to create a National Criminal Justice Commission

    Although some commissions probably just exist as a political show, it was a similar type of commission that led to Portugal's decriminalization of drugs.

  • DJOURNO||

    Reducing discrepancies is not eradicating them. This is yet another example of the failure of the supposed war on drugs and Congress to effectively legislate. - http://disenchantedjourno.blog.....-show.html

  • ||

    Nixon, are you kidding!?

    Nixon was the start of the Controlled Substance Act, the schedule I lie, and all scheduling for that matter, the start of the culture war, and he also buried the Schaffer Commission report, which he commissioned but was unhappy about because the findings of the study ultimately recommended legalization of marijuana.

    Nixon was the start of this disaster, Reagan put a turbo charger on it. Goons.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement