Congress Reduces Gap For Cocaine Sentences

President Obama has signed into law a bill that modified a 1986 drug law that has long resulted in blacks receiving long prison terms for crack cocaine convictions.

Powder cocaine sentences have been far less severe, meaning under the old law, a person caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine would receive the same sentence as a person convicted of trafficking with 500 grams of powder cocaine.

President Obama had campaigned against great difference in sentencing, saying it "cannot be justified and should be eliminated."

The House approved the bill reducing the disparities between mandatory crack and powder cocaine sentences, and President Obama signed it at the beginning of August. During his presidential campaign, Obama said that the wide gap in sentencing "cannot be justified and should be eliminated." And that the sentencing disparity "has disproportionately filled our prisons with young black and Latino drug users." He cited figures that African Americans serve almost as much time for drug offenses -- 58.7 months -- as whites do for violent offenses -- 61.7 months.

The changes to the 1986 law, enacted when fear of crack cocaine was high and many expected a crime wave from violent users. Under the 1986 law, possession of five grams of crack triggered a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence. The same mandatory sentence applies to a person convicted of trafficking 500 grams of powder cocaine.

The new legislation will apply the five-year term to someone with 28 grams, or an ounce, of crack.

The law was passed with bipartisan support, including Republican representatives Reps. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Dan Lundgren (R-CA). It was not without opposition, as Lamar Smith (R-TX) spoke against it, noting the 1986 law was drafted to deal with the expected crack cocaine epidemic that was affecting minority communities.

The feared crime wave never developed. The US Sentencing Commission issued reports that provides evidence that much of the thought underlying the 1986 law was flawed and many have worked since the passage of the 1986 law to modify it.

Supporters of the new law next want to work on the issue of retroactivity. The new law only affects those convicted of cocaine possession after August 3, 2010. It does not change the sentences of the tens of thousands in prison who were sentenced under the old law. A possible solution would be for some of the existing sentences to be commuted by the President.

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