Here’s an incremental, but important victory for criminal justice, as the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity has shrunk:

Congress has changed a quarter-century-old law that has sent tens of thousands of blacks to prison for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient treatment to those, mainly whites, caught with the same amount of the drug in powder form […]

The measure alters a 1986 law, enacted at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, under which a person convicted of crack cocaine possession gets the same mandatory prison term as someone with 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine.

The legislation reduces that ratio to about 18-to-1.

The House passed this today under suspension rules, meaning that over 290 members voted for it. The Senate had passed it earlier. It now goes to the President.

I agree entirely with Adam Serwer when he says that this passage makes the crack disparity “only one fifth as racist as it used to be.” But you know what we don’t do a lot of in this country? Reduce sentences. Check out the makeup of the world’s largest prison population and you’ll see what I mean. “Law ‘n’ Order” and “Tough on Crime” remain shibboleths used by politicians to hammer away at criminal sentencing reformists. So ANY change in a positive direction takes a ridiculous amount of work and struggle. This is a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has a backgrounder on the law change. And the Houston Chronicle spoke out in a very good editorial today. Now, the next step is to eliminate this disparity entirely, so we actually have equal justice under the law.

UPDATE: From the Speaker’s office, here are the full provisions of the bill, which passed by a voice vote.

Reduces the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1, with a 5-year mandatory minimum for 28 grams of crack cocaine and a 5-year mandatory minimum for 500 grams of powder cocaine.

Eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine (the only mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of a drug).

Significantly increases fines for convicted major drug traffickers.

Significantly increases sentences for drug offenders involved in aggravating factors, including bribing law enforcement; maintaining an establishment for drug manufacturing or distribution; involving minors, seniors, or vulnerable victims in the offense; importing drugs; intimidating witnesses; tampering with evidence; or obstructing justice.

David Dayen

David Dayen