Obama signs bill reducing gap in cocaine sentences

WASHINGTON (AP) - This is the first time since the 70s that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence...

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama signed into law on Tuesday a bill to reduce the disparity between federal mandatory sentences for convictions for crack cocaine and the powder form of the illegal drug.

Obama had no comment as he signed in an Oval Office ceremony open only to news photographers.

The sentencing discrepancy has been a longtime irritant within the black community, a vital Obama constituency.

The quarter-century-old law that Congress changed with the bill Obama signed subjected tens of thousands of black cocaine users to long prison terms while specifying far more lenient sentences to those, mainly whites, caught with powder cocaine.

The new law is not retroactive and applies only to federal defendants, with no impact on state mandatory sentencing laws. Most drug arrests occur at the state level.

Monica Pratt, spokeswoman for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the states generally have been ahead of the federal government in moving away from mandatory sentences in general.

And Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said most states already treat crack and powder cocaine the same. The significance of the new law, he said, is that prosecutors sometimes kick cases up to the federal level to get harsher sentences, which now will be less likely to happen.

The measure Obama signed changes a 1986 law that was enacted at a time when crack cocaine use was rampant, especially in major cities. The drug carried with it a reputation as a cause of particularly harsh violence among suppliers, sellers and users.

Under that law, a person convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine got the same mandatory prison term as someone with 500 grams, or 100 times more, of powder cocaine. The legislation reduces that ratio to about 18-1.

The bill also eliminates the five-year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack, the first time since the 1970s that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sentence. The repeal does not apply retroactively.

In the 2008 campaign, Obama cited figures that blacks serve almost as much time for drug offenses, 58.7 months, as whites do for violent offenses, 61.7 months. He said the wide gap in sentencing “cannot be justified and should be eliminated.”

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.