US Attorney General Merrick Garland on Friday moved to end sentencing disparities that have imposed sharply divergent penalties among individuals convicted of crimes involving crack and power cocaine.
In a memo, Garland told federal prosecutors that the disparity is "not supported by science," remarking that "there are no significant pharmacological differences between the drugs."
Under the current law, there is a five-year mandatory prison sentence for offenses involving 28 grams of crack cocaine, while the same mandatory sentence would apply to offenses involving 500 grams of powder cocaine.
The disparities have led to a disproportionate number of Black individuals being convicted of crack-related offenses compared to White defendants — according to the US Sentencing Commission — an issue that advocates have sought to reform for decades in tackling the nation's drug laws.
In 2021, nearly 78 percent of individuals convicted of trafficking crack cocaine were Black, while 15 percent of traffickers were Hispanic and 6 percent were white.
In comparison, that same year, nearly 67 percent of individuals convicted of trafficking powder cocaine were Hispanic; 25 percent were Black and roughly 7 percent were white.
The revised policy is set to take effect in 30 days and will change the requirements mandating minimum sentences for crack-related convictions.
The memo instructs prosecutors to factor in whether or not violence was involved in the crime, while also reviewing if individuals had a "significant managerial role in the trafficking of significant quantities of drugs" and whether they are part of a cartel or a violent gang.
Civil-rights groups have called for such changes for years, pointing to the detrimental impact that sentencing guidelines have had on Black Americans.
"The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine has just one single purpose: to put Black Americans in jail. That's it," NAACP President Derrick Johnson
said in a statement. "There is no scientific justification for prosecuting and sentencing crack and powder offenses differently. It does not make our communities safer and has simply been used as a tool to lock our community up in jail in the failed War on Drugs."Johnson
added that Garland's announcement "is another step toward restoring faith in the criminal justice system for Black Americans."
Garland's memo also stated that the Department of Justice backed the Equal Act, which would terminate the crack-to-powder sentencing disparity on the federal level.