Congress shrinks gap in cocaine sentences
WASHINGTON — Congress on Wednesday 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. During his presidential campaign, Obama said that the wide gap in sentencing “cannot be justified and should be eliminated.”
The Senate passed the bill in March.
The measure changes a 1986 law, enacted at a time 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 same amount 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mandatory minimum for first-time possession of crack, the first time since the Nixon administration that Congress has repealed a mandatory minimum sen- tence. It would not apply retroactively.
Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill, saying the 1986 law was enacted at a time when the crack cocaine epidemic was bringing a sharp spike in violence to minority communities and that it would be a mistake to change it.
Lawmakers take 2nd look at online betting
With pressure mounting on the federal government to find new revenues, Congress is considering legalizing, and taxing, an activity it banned four years ago: Internet gambling.
On Wednesday, the House Financial Services Committee approved a bill that would effectively legalize online poker and other nonsports betting, overturning a 2006 federal ban that critics say merely drove Web-based casinos offshore.
The bill would direct the Treasury Department to license and regulate Internet gambling operations, while a pending companion measure would allow the Internal Revenue Service to tax such businesses. Winnings by individuals would also be taxed, as regular gambling winnings are now. The taxes could yield as much as $42 billion for the government over 10 years, supporters said.