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Garland Tells Prosecutors To End Crack-Powder Charging Disparity

Attorney General Merrick Garland issued prosecutorial guidelines aiming to ease a disparity in sentencing for crack-cocaine versus powder-cocaine crimes, as the Biden administration seeks reverse decades of policy now viewed as unfairly punishing Black defendants. Garland told federal prosecutors they should treat powder- and crack-cocaine crimes more similarly. Crack offenders have historically faced steeper punishments based on the now debunked theory that crack cocaine is more addictive than powder, the Wall Street Journal reports. Congress in the 1980s imposed harsher penalties on crack offenses than powder-cocaine offenses. Possessing five grams of crack cocaine, which had a greater impact in Black communities, carried the same penalty as possessing 500 grams of often more expensive powder cocaine.

Congress has narrowed, but not eliminated, the gap in how crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine offenses are treated. The disparity “is still responsible for unwarranted racial disparities in sentencing,” Garland said. "Higher penalties for crack cocaine offenses are not necessary to achieve (and actually undermine) our law enforcement priorities.” Civil-rights groups had pressed Garland to make such a move, especially after legislation known as the Equal Act, which would eliminate the federal-sentencing disparity, stalled in the Senate amid criticism from Republicans despite overwhelmingly passing the House last year. Republicans opposed to the Equal Act raised concerns about higher recidivism rates involving crack-cocaine offenders and proposed ways to ease the disparity by stiffening punishment for powder-cocaine users. “The attorney general’s guidance to prosecutors ... is baffling and misguided,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Not only does this instruction demand that prosecutors ignore the text and spirit of federal statutes, it undermines legislative efforts to address this sentencing disparity.”

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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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