Congress' passage of a bill reducing the disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine will save millions of dollars to house inmates in federal prisons, but it won't help the thousands of criminals now imprisoned for crack offenses.
The bill, signed by President Barack Obama last week, isn't retroactive, experts say.
Congress changed the 25-year-old law that exposed thousands of African-Americans to long prison terms for crack cocaine convictions while handing out far more lenient sentences to those, mostly whites, caught with more expensive powder cocaine. The new law reduces the disparity in the amounts of each drug required for the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences. It also eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
"While our drug laws should be tough, they should also be fair," U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins told the Observer. "I fully support this change. The law...will re-focus federal prosecutions on high-level drug trafficking organizations."
U.S. District Judge Graham Mullen also praised the new legislation. The federal judge in Charlotte has complained for years the nation's drug laws have a disparate impact on black defendants. Under the old law, a person convicted of possessing crack got the same mandatory sentence as someone convicted for having 100 times more powder cocaine.
"I think the change is long overdue," Mullen told the Observer. "Crack cocaine was never one hundred times more dangerous than powder cocaine. It's all dangerous.
"If the crack cocaine law was subject to the kind of civil rights analysis that many other laws have been, the disparate impact on blacks would have made it unconstitutional."
The 1986 law was enacted during a time when crack cocaine use was rampant and linked to growing violence. It required that defendants caught with just five grams of crack serve a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence - the same sentence required for a defendant caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine.
The new legislation still treats crack defendants more harshly, but reduces the disparity in the amount of drugs required to trigger the mandatory minimum to about 18 to 1.
A defendant caught with 28 grams, or an ounce, of crack now faces the five-year prison term.
About 80 percent of those convicted of crack cocaine offenses are black.
The new law is expected to save the government $42 million over five years because of reduced prison populations, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
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