U.S. Justice Department backs bill to end disparities in crack cocaine sentences

WASHINGTON, June 21 (Reuters) - President Joe Biden's Justice Department is urging Congress to pass legislation to permanently end the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder, a policy that has led to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans across the United States.

In written testimony submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Justice Department lambasted the "unwarranted racial disparities" that have resulted from the differences in how drug offenses involving crack and powder cocaine are treated under current law, and said the misguided policy was "based on misinformation about the pharmacology of cocaine and its effects."

"We believe it is long past time to end the disparity in sentencing policy between federal offenses involving crack cocaine and those involving powder cocaine," the department wrote, noting that as of March 2021, U.S. Sentencing Commission data showed that 87.5 percent of the people serving federal prison time for drug trafficking offenses primarily involving crack cocaine were Black.

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The testimony was released late Monday, ahead of a Tuesday hearing where lawmakers will hear from experts about proposed legislation known as the EQUAL Act, short for Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law.

The disparities between crack and powder cocaine date back to war-on-drugs policies in the 1980s.

In 1986, Congress passed a law to establish mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking offenses, which treated crack and cocaine powder offenses using a 100 to 1 ratio. Under that formula, a person convicted for selling 5 grams of crack cocaine was treated the same as someone who sold 500 grams of powder cocaine.

The 100 to 1 ratio was later reduced in 2010 under the Fair Sentencing Act, down to 18 to 1.

In 2018 during the Trump administration, Congress passed the First Step Act, which sought to help more lower-level crack cocaine offenders take advantage of the less stringent ratio and apply retroactively for sentence reductions.

But in a blow to criminal justice reform advocates, the Supreme Court last week ruled that low-level crack cocaine offenders could not retroactively apply to have their sentences reduced.

In its testimony, the Justice Department urges Congress to ensure that the EQUAL Act, unlike the previous laws, be applied retroactively.

"We support retroactivity because it is the right thing to do," the department said.


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Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Michael Perry

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