U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott scored a victory Wednesday in his bid to put an end to a law that imposes tougher penalties on people sent to prison for possessing crack cocaine than those who possess powder cocaine.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the 3rd District Democrat's bill, known as the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act, or HR3245.
The bill from Scott, whose district includes Portsmouth and parts of Norfolk and extends up to Richmond, would end a law that requires a mandatory five-year sentence for possession of at least 5 grams of crack cocaine. Someone must possess at least 500 grams of powder cocaine to face the same mandatory sentence.
The tougher penalty for crack was adopted in the 1980s.
If approved, Scott's bill would make no distinction between the two forms of the drug, requiring a mandatory five-year sentence for possessing 500 grams or more of either type.
The House panel voted 16-9 in support of the measure. Scott voted for it; the other local legislator on the committee, Republican Randy Forbes of the 4th District, opposed it.
The stiffer penalty for crack, which is a cheaper form of the drug, has been criticized because it has disproportionately affected poor and black drug users.
"For 20 years, the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing has been a blight on our justice system," Michael Macleod-Ball, leader of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, said in a statement. "This historic legislation is long overdue."
The bill now moves to a full vote in the House. President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also have called for an end to the sentencing disparity.
By Bill Bartel
July 30, 2009