WASHINGTON - Congress yesterday changed a quarter-century-old law that has subjected tens of thousands of blacks to long prison terms for crack cocaine convictions while giving far more lenient treatment to those, mainly whites, caught with the powder form of the drug.
The House, by voice vote, approved a bill reducing the disparities between mandatory crack and powder cocaine sentences, sending the measure to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The measure changes a 1986 law, enacted when crack cocaine use was rampant and considered a particularly violent drug, under which a person convicted of crack cocaine possession gets the same mandatory prison term as someone with 100 times the amount of powder cocaine. The legislation reduces that ratio to about 18-1.
The bill also eliminates the 5-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack. It would not apply retroactively.
"For Congress to take a step toward saying 'we have made a mistake' and this sentence is too severe . . . is really remarkable," said Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project.
Under current law, possession of five grams of crack triggers a mandatory minimum 5-year prison sentence. The same sentence applies to a person convicted of trafficking 500 grams of powder cocaine. The proposed legislation would apply the 5-year term to someone with 28 grams, or an ounce, of crack.
Some 80 percent of those convicted of crack cocaine offenses are black.