Garland Tells Prosecutors to End Cocaine Case Disparities

House, Senate bills would alter gap first laid out by Sen. Biden
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 16, 2022 5:35 PM CST
Garland Tells Prosecutors to End Cocaine Case Disparities
Attorney General Merrick Garland, shown Nov. 30, issued new guidance to prosecutors on Friday.   (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Federal prosecutors have been ordered to end sentencing disparities involving convictions for distributing cocaine: For decades, crack convictions have brought harsher punishments than powder cocaine offenses. Civil rights advocates and other opponents of the policy criticize the gap as harming Black and brown communities, a result of the government's war on drugs, the Washington Post reports. The existing policy requires a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine; the relevant amount for powder cocaine is 500 grams. Attorney General Merrick Garland sent US attorneys a memo Friday telling them to push for sentences "consistent with powder cocaine rather than crack cocaine."

The US Sentencing Commission found that 77% of people convicted on crack trafficking charges in 2020 were Black, though most users have been white or Hispanic. Legislation to end the different treatment cleared the House last year with bipartisan backing but has been stuck in the Senate, blocked by Republican opposition. Negotiators struck a tentative deal this week to reduce the disparity to 2.5-to-1, per Reuters. As a senator in 1986, President Biden wrote the bill setting the sentencing ratio at 100-to-1. A 2010 law cut it to 18-to-1. The Biden administration last year came out in support of equal treatment.

"There’s no justification for this, and we should end this," Garland said during his Senate confirmation hearing last year. Powder cocaine "is as dangerous with respect to crime rates as crack cocaine, both of which have now been unfortunately overtaken by fentanyl and the opioids," he said. "But both of those are bad problems [and] equalizing penalties for crack and powder should have no difference with respect to our ability to fight violent crime." The new guidance will take effect within 30 days, aides to Garland said, per the Post. It will not affect past convictions. (More Merrick Garland stories.)

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