The Department of Justice is now moving to right a historic wrong by instructing prosecutors to eliminate racial disparities in cases in drug cases at the behest of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
On Friday (Dec. 16th), Garland issued directives to federal prosecutors to pursue the same charges and establish equivalent sentencing for both cocaine powder and crack cocaine. The current law sees people who are convicted of possessing 28 grams of crack cocaine receive a mandatory sentence of five years in prison. That same sentence is only given to those who are convicted of possessing nearly twenty times that amount in the powdered form of cocaine. The previous situation highlighted how Black and Latinx defendants were unfairly given heavier sentences under those guidelines which began under President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” in 1986.
Garland’s move to step in and issue these new guidelines comes after the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act, or EQUAL Act, was passed by the Democratic-led House of Representatives last year with Republican support. But despite 11 GOP Senators backing it, the bill was ultimately stalled once it was presented to the Senate for a vote due to lacking the 60 votes needed for its advancement. The ratio at the heart of the act was lowered in 2009 from 100-to-1 under the Fair Sentencing Act which was passed by Congress while President Barack Obama was in office in 2010.
The attorney general sent out his directives in a memo. “In such cases, prosecutors should consider supporting a downward departure or variance,” Mr. Garland wrote. The memo also outlines that these new guidelines should also cover sentences that result from plea agreements. Individual prosecutors still have the leeway to use discretion on this matter from case to case.
The directive prompted some concern from Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa who claimed in a statement that “it undermines legislative efforts to address this sentencing disparity.” He continued: “That hard-won compromise has been jeopardized because the attorney general inappropriately took lawmaking into his own hands.”
The move is something that President Joe Biden and his administration have been agitating for since entering office. Garland had issued a memo early last year stating that attorney general’s offices across the country should expect new guidelines to be released. The timing of the move is significant as well, as Congress is in a lame-duck session before the Republicans regain control of the House next year while the Democrats have a firmer control of the Senate.