Sep 28, 2021 - Politics & Policy

By the numbers: Cocaine sentencing disparities

Cocaine trafficking offenders, by type
Data: USSC; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

In a rare show of bipartisanship, the House voted 361-66 on Tuesday in favor of the EQUAL Act — a bill that would eliminate sentencing discrepancies between offenses for crack and powder cocaine.

Why it matters: For decades, much smaller amounts of crack than powder cocaine have triggered mandatory minimum sentences of at least five years, despite them being different forms of the same drug. And that's fueled a significant racial disparity in drug-sentencing outcomes.

  • 77% of those arrested for and convicted of crack trafficking in 2020 were Black, compared to 27% for powder cocaine, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. 64% of powder cocaine offenders were Hispanic.
  • More than half of traffickers for either kind of cocaine received at least five-year sentences. There have been fewer crack than powder cocaine offenders in recent years, but the crack offenders have received more prison time, on average.

Between the lines: Both Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a progressive Democrat, and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, a conservative Republican, spoke Tuesday afternoon in support of the bill.

  • Their unity showed that while the police reform debate remains partisan and contentious, other efforts at criminal justice reform have garnered more bipartisan support in recent years.

How we got here: A law passed in 1986 created the same mandatory minimum sentences for crimes with five grams of crack and 500 grams of powder cocaine — a 100:1 disparity.

  • In 2010, that disparity was reduced to 18:1 through the Fair Sentencing Act.
  • In 2018, in the First Step Act, that reduced disparity was made retroactive, allowing more than 3,700 incarcerated people — almost all Black — to reduce their sentences and thousands to be released early.
  • If the EQUAL Act passes the Senate, the disparity would be eliminated both for future offenses as well as retroactively. The Biden administration's acting director of National Drug Control Policy has voiced support for the bill.

What to watch: The dynamic duo on criminal justice reform — Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — are working on a larger package that could include measures to address cocaine sentencing disparities.

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