Mar 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Mass incarceration a "stain on our democracy"

Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Kelly Armstrong
Photo: Axios

The disparate sentencing between crack and powder cocaine should be a target of criminal justice reform efforts, argued Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) during an Axios virtual event on Thursday.

Why it matters: These unequal sentences in cocaine convictions have been a "substantial part" in fueling over-criminalization of drug use that disproportionally affects Black and Latino Americans, Jeffries noted.

  • "America incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, including per capita, China and Russia combined. It's a stain on our democracy, and that's been fueled by the failed war on drugs," he added.
  • Earlier this month Jeffries and Armstrong helped introduce the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act in the House, which aims to eliminate the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine and to allow for retroactive sentencing adjustments for those "already convicted or sentenced."

What they're saying: Both Jeffries and Armstrong noted that the current modes of sentencing increase the rates of incarceration and recidivism while not preparing people to re-enter society once they've served their terms.

  • "If you're going to lock people up for unbelievably disproportionate amount of times in a federal penitentiary — which until recently you had to serve 85 percent — you're teaching them how to be better criminals and not be better members of society," Armstrong said.
  • "Growing up and coming of age in Brooklyn in the midst of the crack cocaine epidemic. I can tell you that I've just seen countless lives ruined without a meaningful investment in trying to help individuals successfully return to society," said Jeffries.

Armstrong also noted that he is heartened to see an increasing number of people recognizing that addiction is a disease, and "not simply a crime."

  • "Of course we should hold people accountable for their actions. But really, we're not in a place where we should be sending people to 35 years in prison for a first-time offense for a nonviolent crime."
  • "We don't have to be soft on crime. We just have to be smarter about how we deal with this," he added.

Watch the full event here.

Go deeper