One week after President Clinton decried the "disproportionate percentage" of young black men going to prison, he has decided to sign into law a bill that would maintain stiff prison sentences for those caught with small amounts of crack cocaine.
The legislation would block a move by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to make prison terms the same for violations involving crack and powdered cocaine. While virtually all of those prosecuted for crack are black, powdered cocaine is used more by whites.
Speakers at the "Million Man March" blamed racially biased federal drug laws for the fact that the nation's prisons are so full. The Congressional Black Caucus told Clinton that the drug-law issue marks the "first test" of whether the Administration wants to end racism in the criminal justice system.
Under current federal law, people who are caught with just five grams of crack must be sentenced to five years in prison but it takes 500 grams of powdered cocaine to get the same five-year sentence.
Clinton will preserve the harsher penalties for crack cocaine because he believes it takes a greater toll on communities through violence and gang activity, aides said.
However, at the same time Clinton signs the bill, he will emphasize that he supports its provision calling for further study to see whether sentences for crack cocaine should be adjusted downward.
Aides said that Clinton may sign the bill as early as today.
In May, the Sentencing Commission, made up of federal judges and legal experts, voted to make equal the penalties for the two types of cocaine, which are essentially the same substance. Under this approach, people caught with tiny amounts of crack should get probation or at most a few months in prison, so long as they did not have a gun or engage in violence, the panel said.
But on Oct. 18, the House voted, 332 to 83, to reject that recommendation. The Senate had done the same three weeks earlier. The votes marked the first time in the commission's seven-year history that Congress has moved to block one of its sentencing proposals.
Republican floor leaders said that they oppose any retreat on drug laws and argued that crack is exceedingly potent and dangerous.
But black lawmakers argued that the current approach unfairly punishes the poor.
"If somebody is convicted of selling $225 worth of crack cocaine, they get the same penalty as somebody who sells $50,000 worth of powder cocaine," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.). "Poor young kids who can afford only crack go to jail. Rich young kids who can afford powder cocaine go home and sleep in their own beds."
In the last four years, 96% of those prosecuted for crack cocaine crimes were blacks or Latinos.
Both Clinton and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno have made clear that they are aware of the issue and troubled by the impact of harsh drug laws on young black men.
On the day of the "Million Man March," Clinton spoke on race relations in Austin, Tex., and condemned the "disproportionate percentage [of black men who are in prison for drug crimes] in comparison to the percentage of blacks who use drugs in our society."
Reno said Thursday that she favors the move to make the drug sentences equal but argued that the issue should be studied more.