Dec 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Garland orders end to cocaine sentencing disparities

Illustration of a gavel emerging from a shadow

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo to all federal prosecutors on Friday instructing them to end sentencing disparities in case involving the distribution of crack and powder cocaine.

Why it matters: The current policy — that possession of 28g of crack cocaine triggers a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence, compared with 500g of powder cocaine — has led to the disproportionate incarceration of Black people.

The details: Garland's memo instructs prosecutors to charge and make sentencing recommendations for crack cocaine defendants no differently than for defendants in powder cocaine cases. 

  • "The crack/powder disparity in sentencing has no basis in science, furthers no law enforcement purposes, and drives unwarranted racial disparities in our criminal justice system," DOJ spokesperson Aryele Bradford said in a statement.
  • In drug cases, Garland instructs prosecutors to reserve mandatory minimums for those who are violent or who have a history of violence, those who have "significant ties" to gangs or major drug trafficking organizations, or who cause serious bodily injury or death, among other criteria.
  • The new guidelines will take effect within 30 days.

The big picture: The 100-to-1 disparity between the amount of powder and crack cocaine that triggers a federal mandatory minimum sentence — created by the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act — has been diluted in recent years.

  • The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act lowered the disparity from 18-to-1, and the 2018 First Step Act made that reform retroactive.

Between the lines: Though then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) co-sponsored the 1986 bill creating the disparity, President Biden has since supported efforts to reverse the policy.

  • His Justice Department also has endorsed the EQUAL Act, which is stalled in the Senate as the window for passing legislation this Congress closes rapidly.

Go deeper: Congress closes in on cocaine sentencing disparity

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