The Biden administration will urge Congress to pass legislation that would end sentencing differences between crack and powder cocaine crimes, decades-old guidelines that critics say have unduly targeted communities of color and resulted in the mass incarceration of Black Americans, according to multiple reports.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on federal sentencing guidelines and include a bipartisan panel of officials. The Washington Post first reported that Regina LaBelle, the acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, will speak at the hearing and express President Joe Biden’s support for the passage of the Equal Act (Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law), which was introduced earlier this year by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
The Equal Act would close a gulf in sentencing that punishes possession of crack cocaine much more severely than the possession of an equal amount of powder cocaine. It would also mandate that those convicted of such offenses can be resentenced.
“The current disparity is not based on evidence yet has caused significant harm for decades, particularly to individuals, families, and communities of color,” LaBelle will say, according to remarks obtained by the Post. “The continuation of this sentencing disparity is a significant injustice in our legal system, and it is past time for it to end.”
Reuters added that the Justice Department has submitted testimony to the panel lambasting what it called “unwarranted racial disparities” in the law, which it said was “based on misinformation about the pharmacology of cocaine and its effects.” The DOJ added that federal sentencing data shows 87.5% of people serving time in prison for drug trafficking crimes involving crack cocaine are Black.
The agency, Reuters notes, will urge Congress to apply the Equal Act retroactively “because it is the right thing to do.” The Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that low-level drug offenders do not require new sentences under a separate 2018 law that overhauled the criminal justice system.
The sentencing differences date back to a 1986 law crafted by then-Sen. Joe Biden, which mandated a five-year minimum sentence for drug offenses involving 500 grams of powder cocaine or just 5 grams of crack cocaine. The 100-to-1 ratio was regularly criticized and later reduced to 18-to-1 in 2010 under the Fair Sentencing Act, but equal justice advocates have argued for the entire gap to be closed.
Biden has since disavowed the legislation, and his administration’s push to support the Equal Act is a notable step in his presidency. As a candidate, Biden was scrutinized for his tough-on-crime record as a senator, and he pledged to eliminate the sentencing disparities as well as mandatory minimum sentencing.
On Monday, Durbin said lawmakers now know such laws unduly ruin lives.
“We now know that this wrong-headed crack-powder disparity has ruined thousands of lives and failed to move us one step closer to ending the scourge of drug addiction in America,” Durbin wrote Monday on Twitter. “Enough.”
The hearing on Monday will be notably bipartisan. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who led the Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush, will use his own testimony to criticize the differences in sentencing as a situation that “weakens the foundation of our system of justice.”
“Congress now has the opportunity to build on the bipartisan successes of the Fair Sentencing Act and the First Step Act by eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine once and for all,” Hutchinson will say in his remarks, which were also obtained by the Post. “The strength of our justice system is dependent on the perception of fundamental fairness.”
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