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Congress Running Out of Time To Cut Disparity In Drug Sentences

With only a few weeks left in the congressional session, a final push for reducing the federal sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses is on a long end-of-the-year to-do list. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who is playing a leading role in the talks, said, “we’re in a tough negotiation moment right now.” He added, “I just want to make sure that I focus on doing what I can to get something over the line, as opposed to talking about strategy.” There was some discussion about attaching a potential agreement onto the National Defense Authorization Act, but that’s no longer expected, leaving a broader end-of-the-year spending deal as the last option, reports Politico.

While criminal justice reform advocates want to see the disparity eliminated, citing legislation that passed the House last year by an overwhelming margin, the current talks surround reducing the ratio from the current 18:1 to 2.5:1. Sticking points include language from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA about the role of the Justice Department when it comes to applying the change retroactively. Democrats are discussing removing retroactivity altogether. Kevin Ring of the criminal justice advocacy organization FAMM said it would be “immoral to pass a bill that did not provide relief to those whose sentences were so bad that it convinced Congress to change the law.” The U.S. Sentencing Commission has estimated that retroactive application of the EQUAL Act would save 50,000 years of imprisonment for the more than 7500 persons incarcerated for crack offenses, but "only" a little over 2,000 prison years for each year going forward. Any potential statutory reform that does not lower crack sentencing all the way down to be equal with powder cocaine sentencing will have a more modest impact.


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