First round approval for bill trimming disparity in drug sentences

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri House members endorsed legislation Thursday that would reduce the disparity in prison sentences between people convicted of crack and powder cocaine crimes.

Under the state’s current trafficking laws, people convicted of producing and possessing more than 2 grams of crack face the same sentences as those with more than 150 grams of cocaine. New legislation would require people to manufacture or possess more than 28 grams of crack to be charged with the crime drug trafficking.

Changes to how Missouri treats crack and powder cocaine were added this past week to broader legislation dealing with the state’s judiciary. The overall judiciary legislation was approved 151-1 on Thursday and now moves to the state Senate.

Federal drug laws in 2010 were changed to more closely align prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine. Last year, a national group that advocates for criminal justice reforms urged more than a dozen states to eliminate sentencing disparities in state drug laws. The Sentencing Project said in its report that the disparity is unfair to black drug users, who are more likely to be charged with crack cocaine offenses, and can lead to costly prison terms for nonviolent offenders.

Rep. Chris Kelly, who sponsored the Missouri amendment, said there should be some sentencing differences because crack can be more destructive than the same quantity of powder cocaine. Still, he said the sentencing discrepancy in Missouri cannot be justified by the differences between the drugs.

“The disparity was way out of hand,” said Kelly, D-Columbia.

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