Congress Reduces Cocaine/Crack Sentencing DisparityS

Hey, your Congress did something today! The House passed a bill (already passed by the Senate) to reduce a relic of '80s-style freak-out legislation: reducing the massive disparity between powder and crack cocaine prison sentences.

Back in 1986, the heyday of the "crack epidemic," the government passed a law wherein "a person convicted of crack cocaine possession gets the same mandatory prison term as someone with 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine." So basically a bunch of poor black people went to prison for five years, while celebrities just did a ton of cocaine in public every night, freely.

The bill the Senate passed in March reset the ratio from 100:1 to 1:1, although — in a rare role-reversal — the House watered that ratio down to 18:1 in the version it passed today:

The bill cuts the 100:1 ratio in the amount of powder cocaine versus crack cocaine that trigger the same sentence, a disparity adopted in the mid-1980s amid fears a crack epidemic was fueling out-of-control violence.

The legislation as introduced by its lead author, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, would have cut the ratio to 1:1, but dealmaking to ensure its passage resulted in a compromise ratio of 18:1.

The bill will reduce "the unwarranted lengthy sentences for crack cocaine that are devastating to African American communities," said Democratic Representative Jim Clyburn.

While just 25 percent of crack users are African-American, they constituted 81 percent of those convicted for crack offenses in 1987, according to the office of Senate Judiciary Committee chair Pat Leahy, a top backer of the bill.

Progress!

[Image via Shutterstock]