The Biden administration “strongly supports” ending the racial disparity of sentencing federal offenders who are convicted for crack versus powdered cocaine, according to head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who testified Tuesday in support of a measure to do just that.
The Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act, known as the EQUAL Act, is a bipartisan measure that would counteract the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a strict drug policy that has incarcerated thousands of people of color, specifically Black people, for decades or for life for crack-related offenses, according to the Justice Department.
“The current disparity is not based on evidence yet has caused significant harm for decades, particularly for individuals, families and communities of color,” Regina LaBelle, the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. “The continuation of the sentencing disparity is a significant injustice in our legal system. And it’s past time for it to end.”
The EQUAL Act was introduced earlier this year by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, the Judiciary Committee chairman. Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman later joined in the measure. The House companion bill is sponsored by Democratic Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Bobby Scott of Virginia together with GOP Reps. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota and Don Bacon of Nebraska.
The 1986 law mandated sentencing guidelines such as a minimum of five years in federal prison without the possibility of parole for possession of five grams of crack cocaine — regardless of whether it was the offender’s first brush with the criminal justice system.
“The disparity in federal cocaine sentencing policy has been the most visible symbol of racial unfairness in the federal criminal justice system for almost 35 years, and it is time to eliminate it,” the Justice Department wrote in a statement as well.
“The crack/powder sentencing disparity has unquestionably led to unjustified differences in sentences for trafficking in two forms of the same substance, as well as unwarranted racial disparities in its application,” the Justice Department said. “The sentencing disparity was based on misinformation about the pharmacology of cocaine and its effects, and it is unnecessary to address the genuine and critical societal problems associated with trafficking cocaine, including violent crime.”
Matthew Charles, a fellow with the Families Against Mandatory Minimums, was given a mandatory 35-year sentence in federal prison for selling crack cocaine because of his prior criminal activity. He testified that sentences should be left to the discretion of the judge presiding over an individual’s case, noting that it was a judge who granted his release from prison in 2016 after serving 21 years behind bars.
According to the group, “It turned out, though, that his release was a mistake, and in May of 2018, he was sent back to serve out the rest of his sentence—more than a decade left to go. But on January 3 of this year, Matthew became one of the very first people to benefit from the First Step Act and was released again.”
Charles says that the judge released him because if he had been sentenced for powder cocaine he wouldn’t have still been incarcerated.
“It was the crack cocaine that continued to hold me bound,” Charles said.
As of March, “87.5% of the individuals serving sentences in the federal Bureau of Prisons for drug trafficking offenses, where the primary drug involved was crack cocaine, were Black. That means almost 90% of the federal inmates still suffering from the effects of the disparity, today, are Black,” the Justice Department said.
If the bill passes, the Justice Department says that it also supports retroactively reducing the penalties of individuals who are currently incarcerated after a judicial review because “it is the right thing to do and because evidence shows that previous instances of retroactive penalty reductions did not impact public safety.”