After a four-month delay, the House passed legislation Wednesday that would reduce the sentencing disparity for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine.
The House passed the measure by voice vote, clearing it for the president’s signature.
The legislation would establish an 18-to-1 sentencing ratio for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The current decades-old sentencing law sets a 100-to-1 ratio, requiring the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the possession of five grams of crack cocaine as it does for the possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine.
Democrats, led by Virginia Rep. Robert C. Scott, had pushed for a different version of the bill that would eliminate the 100-to-1 ratio. Democrats have argued the law tends to disproportionately target blacks because crack is typically used in poorer urban communities.
But Republicans refused to support eliminating the ratio altogether, instead pushing for the 18-to-1 ratio compromise proposed by the Senate.
On Wednesday, Scott said the bill was “a step in the right direction.”
“We’ve had years of experience and have determined that there’s no justification for the 100-to-1 ratio,” Scott said. “That’s what we know. We’re not blaming anybody for what happened in 1986, but we are fixing what we have learned through years of experience.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised the House for agreeing to the compromise.
The 100-to-1 ratio “is wrong and unfair, and it has needlessly swelled our prisons, wasting precious federal resources,” Leahy said. “It has taken years of patient work and goodwill to build consensus on this issue. Finally, after many years of work and compromise, the President will sign this historic legislation into law.”
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit that has pushed for eliminating the sentencing disparity, also applauded the legislation’s passage and pledged to push for retroactive application of the new ratio.
“Members of both parties deserve enormous credit for moving beyond the politics of fear and simply doing the right thing,” said Julie Stewart, founder and President of FAMM. “For those of us who have been pushing for reform for nearly 20 years, today’s vote is phenomenal. To see members of Congress come together on such a historically partisan issue like this during an election year is heartening.
Attorney General Eric Holder also congratulated lawmakers for the clearing the bill.
“The bill greatly reduces the unwarranted disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses, and will go a long way toward ensuring that our sentencing laws are tough, consistent, and fair,” Holder said in a statement. “By sending the bill to the president, the House has taken an important step toward more just sentencing policies while enhancing the ability of law enforcement officials to protect our communities from violent and dangerous drug traffickers.”