Justice Department moves to eliminate cocaine sentencing disparity

By Jonathan Blecher on December 21, 2022

Cocaine sentencing disparity refers to the unequal treatment of individuals who are convicted of crimes involving cocaine, particularly in regards to the length of prison sentences they receive. This issue has been a longstanding concern in the United States, where there is a significant difference in the way that federal sentencing guidelines treat offenses involving crack cocaine versus powder cocaine.

The root of this issue can be traced back to the 1980s and the crack cocaine epidemic that swept the nation at that time. In response to this crisis, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which established severe penalties for the possession and distribution of crack cocaine. Specifically, the law mandated a five-year minimum sentence for possession of just five grams of crack cocaine, while possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine carried the same penalty. This 100-to-1 ratio was later reduced to an 18-to-1 ratio in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, but it remains a significant disparity.

Critics of this sentencing disparity argue that it disproportionately affects communities of color, as crack cocaine is more commonly used in these communities. According to the Sentencing Project, Black Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than white Americans, and they are more likely to be sentenced to longer prison terms. This has led to calls for reform of the criminal justice system and for more equitable treatment of individuals who are convicted of crimes involving cocaine.

There have been several efforts to address this issue in recent years. In 2014, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce the sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenses, making them more in line with those for powder cocaine offenses. This change applied retroactively, allowing thousands of individuals to petition for shorter prison sentences. Additionally, the First Step Act, which was signed into law in 2018, included provisions that aimed to reduce the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

Good News! Attorney General Merrick Garland told federal prosecutors on Friday to end disparities in the way they charge offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine. His memo tells prosecutors to treat “crack cocaine defendants no differently than for defendants in powder cocaine cases” when they are charging defendants and making sentencing recommendations. He also instructs prosecutors to  charge cases with mandatory minimums to those where there are certain aggravating factors, such as leadership of an organized crime group.

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