U.S. Senate set to address cocaine sentencing disparity in funding bill

The exterior of the U.S. Capitol is seen at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2022. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

WASHINGTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Negotiators in the U.S. Senate have reached a tentative deal to narrow sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine and plan to tuck the measure into a bill funding the government, according to four people briefed on the matter.

Mandatory minimum sentences for crack-related offenses are currently 18 times lengthier than those for powder cocaine, which has led to the disproportionate incarceration of Black Americans since the policy was adopted almost four decades ago.

Under a deal reached by bipartisan negotiators, that proportion would be narrowed to 2.5 to 1, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss private talks. Congress is likely to attach the measure to a year-end spending bill that lawmakers are currently hashing out, they added.

Legislation that would completely eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder passed in the House of Representatives by a wide margin last year, though it has not advanced in the Senate.

Several Senate Republicans, including Chuck Grassley, the party's highest-ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, have publicly supported a 2.5-to-1 proportion instead.

Grassley's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a key actor in cocaine sentencing talks, declined to comment.

The tentative deal does not include retroactive relief for people already convicted of crack-related offenses, which sentencing reform groups had been pushing for, the people said.

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

In 1986, Congress passed a law to establish mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking offenses, which treated crack and powder cocaine 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. That proportion was narrowed to 18 to 1 in 2010.

While the people involved in negotiations see the passage of the cocaine sentencing compromise as likely, they warned the deal could still fall apart as Congress races to pass the sweeping, expected $1.7 trillion government funding measure.

Reporting by Gram Slattery; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Washington-based correspondent covering campaigns and Congress. Previously posted in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Santiago, Chile, and has reported extensively throughout Latin America. Co-winner of the 2021 Reuters Journalist of the Year Award in the business coverage category for a series on corruption and fraud in the oil industry. He was born in Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard College.