President Obama signed a bill today that reduces the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing. It is the first time in U.S. history that a law has been passed lessening a mandatory minimum sentence.
For more than two decades since the passage of the "Len Bias Law" – a law that codified severe mandatory minimums for possession of a mere 5 grams of crack, while reserving the same punishment for 500 grams of powder cocaine – the number of federal drug prisoners has skyrocketed. It also helped perpetuate the severe racial disparities present in American prisons, as Blacks make up upwards of 80 percent of crack cocaine users and Whites predominantly are the users of powder cocaine.
The new law reduces the disparity in punishment to 18-to-1 ratio, instead of the old 100-to-1. In practice, if a person possesses 28 grams of crack, they trigger a five year mandatory minimum sentence.
The irony in the original Len Bias Law – enacted after the basketball player's death to allegedly save others from his fate – is that Bias did not die of a crack overdose, as had been reported at the time. He died of a powder cocaine overdose.
The law passed with a rare show of bipartisanship, clearing the Senate unanimously and the House with merely a voice vote. It is unclear if Congress will work to apply the sentences retroactively.