Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley just won his eighth term in Congress, and while this development might seem to merely perpetuate the status quo, it actually has important implications for US drug sentencing reform. Grassley stands in the way of a crucial law’s passage that would help bring an end to sentencing disparities in crack and powdered cocaine.
The Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act would end the crack cocaine disparity and provide immediate sentencing relief to an estimated 10,000 inmates, more than 90% of whom are black. An amendment to add the EQUAL Act to the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 4350) passed the House of Representatives in July with bipartisan support — it has 11 Republican co-sponsors, which technically means the policy could pass as a stand-alone bill.
Good luck getting that by Grassley, who has a history of supporting legislation that’s tough on crime, specifically when it comes to drugs. He has called the EQUAL Act a “poison pill” for criminal justice reform. He recently voted against it stating that he acknowledged the disparate impact between communities of color, but still believes in the stigma of higher recidivism, addiction and violent offenders being a greater risk for crack cocaine compared to powdered cocaine. These allegations have either been proven scientifically false or already carry legislation to mitigate the perceived threats.
Despite myths surrounding crack cocaine, the substance has not been found to be more addictive than its powdered counterpart, and overdoses are the result of the combination of powdered cocaine and the deadly substance fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Secondly, although recidivism rate is higher for crack cocaine compared to powdered cocaine, the United States Sentencing Commission says letting convicted crack cocaine dealers out of prison early (based on retroactive reductions) has little impact on the likelihood they would commit new crimes.
In addition, as many policymakers have pointed out, there are already enhanced guidelines with crack offenders in possession of guns in addition to the guidelines that already address recidivism to increase sentencing ranges based on the defendant’s criminal history. Thus, there’s no reason for crack cocaine offenders to be treated differently than cocaine offenders as evidence-based practices are used again and again to disprove the myths surrounding the drug.
Yet, sadly, there is little hope for the EQUAL Act.
So what’s left? Senator Grassley’s own bill to address the disparity. In May of this year, Grassley proposed a bill that would adjust the current 18:1 crack-to-powder ratio — whereby possession of one gram of crack cocaine or 18 grams of powdered cocaine results in statutory penalties — to 2.5:1 (powder to crack). That change wouldn’t affect sentencing for those in possession of crack cocaine, it would just be more punitive on powder. The bill would also lower the volume of powdered cocaine required to trigger mandatory minimum sentences while raising the required volume for crack. In the end, the bill is a step in the right direction, but still indulges the errant idea that sentence reduction for crack cocaine offenders will increase the likelihood of recidivism.
Current drug reform movements from the executive branch aren’t too promising either. President Joe Biden recently announced his decision to pardon nearly 7,000 inmates with criminal charges of marijuana possession, promising to shorten prison sentences and secure employment and housing to allow them to reintegrate into society more easily. While the pardon will help the 6,577 citizens with a criminal record for simple pot possession, the widespread legalization of recreational and medicinal marijuana among the states makes Biden’s pardon nearly moot. It’s a positive step for federal marijuana reform, but pardoning marijuana charges won’t set anyone free from prison — and it certainly won’t stop sentencing disparities across racial lines.
It has been four decades and counting in the effort to end the disparity in crack cocaine and powdered cocaine. We can only hope for the best in the coming months as the Senate makes their decision.
Finesse Moreno-Rivera is an expert in Criminal Justice Reform and research analysis. Finesse has worked with federal and state institutions such as the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer.