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House passes bill to reduce disparity in cocaine penalties

By Terry Frieden, CNN Justice Producer
  • A 25-year-old law set mandatory minimum sentences in crack cocaine cases
  • Crack cocaine sentences were more severe than those in powder cocaine cases
  • The new law's supporters say it offsets disparities in penalties
  • Conyers: The old law pushed the number of drug offenders in federal prison to nearly 100,000

Washington (CNN) -- Ending a decade-long campaign led by African-American lawmakers, the House Wednesday approved and sent to President Barack Obama a measure to reduce the disparity in penalties between use of crack and powder cocaine.

Under a 25-year-old law, mandatory minimum sentences involving crack cocaine -- a drug more commonly used by blacks than whites -- led to far more severe penalties than for offenses involving powder cocaine, generally preferred by whites.

"The Fair Sentencing Act will reduce sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1," said Congressman John Conyers, D-Michigan, who applauded the passage.

Conyers said the crack mandatory sentences had pushed the number of drug offenders in federal prisons from fewer than 5,000 in 1980 to nearly 100,000 in 2009.

The law drops the five-year mandatory sentence for first time offenders, and for repeat offenders with less than 28 grams of crack. Current law sets the mandatory sentence for conviction at five grams.

Support for reducing the disparity with powder cocaine offenders increased with reports beginning in 2002 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission calling for Congress to change the crack cocaine law. The commission is independent agency in the judicial branch that develops national sentencing policy for the federal courts.

The House measure, passed on a voice vote with bipartisan support, follows passage by the Senate in March.

President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder had both pressed for passage of the law.

"This day was long in coming," said Holder. He said the bill will "go a long way toward ensuring that our sentencing laws are tough, consistent, and fair."

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus had led the battle for passage for 10 years. Holder also singled out key Republicans including Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who had joined with Democrats. Conyers tipped his hat to House GOP members Dan Lungren, R-California, James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and Ron Paul, R-Texas, for their support.

Not all Republicans joined the majority, however.

The top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee Lamar Smith, R-Texas, argued vigorously shortly before passage that to reduce the crack cocaine penalties would be a serious mistake.

"Reducing the penalties for crack cocaine could expose our neighborhoods to the same violence and addiction that caused Congress to act in the first place," Smith said. "Crack cocaine is associated with a greater degree of violence than most other drugs. And more than any other drug, the majority of crack defendants have prior criminal convictions," Smith said.

The White House is expected to schedule a presidential signing ceremony within a month.