Washington » A long-standing dispute over huge disparities in sentencing between crack vs. powdered cocaine appears to be headed for a resolution in Congress.
Senate lawmakers reached across the aisle and brokered a landmark deal this week to reduce criminal penalties for defendants caught with crack cocaine, hashing out the terms in, a congressional gym.
Opportunity struck when Sen. Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., encountered colleagues Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in the Senate gym early Thursday. Durbin sent his aides an e-mail at 7:35 a.m., outlining the terms of his offer. The deal was sealed with a handshake two hours later.
The often-divided Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the measure 19-0 the same day, addressing for the first time in two decades a sentencing disparity that has troubled civil rights organizations, prisoners rights advocates and officials in the Obama White House.
The compromise would reduce the sentencing disparity to 18-1 for people caught with crack cocaine versus those who carry the drug in powdered form.
The current ratio has rested since 1986 at 100-1, disproportionately hurting African Americans, who are convicted of crack possession at far greater numbers.
The Senate bill would increase the amount of crack cocaine required to trigger a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession with an intent to distribute from 5 grams to 28 grams. Possessing cocaine in rock form would no longer carry a mandatory minimum prison term, equalizing that penalty to that of other drugs and marking the first time that Congress has overturned a mandatory minimum.