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US Attorney General Calls for End to Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

Memos from the head of the US Justice Department point to drug policies linked to high rates of incarceration for blacks.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland directed federal prosecutors Friday to end disparities in how they prosecute crack and powder cocaine-related crimes.

The change, outlined in a pair of internal memos released Friday by the US Department of Justice, is a major victory for criminal justice reform advocates, who say the current sentencing regime has led to the disproportionate incarceration of black Americans since the policy was implemented. adopted almost 40 years ago.

Mandatory minimum sentences for crack-related offenses are currently 18 times longer than those for powder cocaine. The Justice Department has supported eliminating that disparity, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers is working on legislation that would significantly reduce it.

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In the memos, Garland instructs prosecutors to treat “crack cocaine defendants the same as defendants in powder cocaine cases” when charging defendants and making sentencing recommendations. .

They also instruct prosecutors to reserve charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences for situations involving certain aggravating factors, such as leadership of an organized crime group.

Advocates welcomed the measure, but added that codifying the change in law was key.

“Today’s announcement recognizes this injustice and takes steps to finally achieve sentencing parity for powder and crack cocaine when there are no pharmacological differences in the substances,” Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, a sponsor of the crack cocaine legislation, said in a statement. sentences for cocaine.

The move comes as Senate negotiators near an agreement to introduce a measure to reduce sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine in a year-end spending bill.

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In 1986, Congress passed a law to establish mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking offenses, which treated crack and powder cocaine offenses using a ratio of 100 to 1. Under that formula, a person convicted of selling 5 g of crack cocaine received the same treatment as someone who sold 500 g of powder cocaine. That ratio dropped to 18 to 1 in 2010.

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Garland’s guidance goes into effect in 30 days. It does not apply retroactively.

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