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 Families Against Mandatory Minimums says this is "the first time that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum drug sentence since the Nixon administration."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.