Washington D.C., Aug 11, 2022 / 16:50 pm (CNA).
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pressed the U.S. Senate to make the penalty for distributing crack cocaine the same as that imposed on those caught dealing powder cocaine.
In an Aug. 1 letter to Congress, the bishops announced their support for legislation passed in the House of Representatives that would eliminate a disparity in federal sentencing the bishops say has a disproportionate effect on Black people.
“Although crack and powder cocaine are simply two forms of the same drug, crack cocaine is cheaper; therefore, it is more accessible than powder cocaine to persons experiencing poverty, many of whom are persons of color,” the letter read.
“We cannot ignore the racial impact of current federal cocaine sentences when Blacks are more than three times as likely to be convicted for crack cocaine trafficking as for powder cocaine trafficking,” wrote Bishops Paul S. Coakley and Shelton J. Fabre of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.
An amendment to add the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act to the defense authorization bill passed the House of Representatives on July 19 with bipartisan support.
If approved by the Senate the EQUAL act would impose the same penalty on both forms of cocaine. In 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which established separate sentences for cocaine and crack cocaine offenses. If two individuals were caught with the same amount of cocaine, the one with crack cocaine would receive a sentence 100 times as severe as the person convicted of distributing powder cocaine.
In 2010, Congress passed reforms to reduce that disparity to 18:1. Today, the penalty for 500 grams of powder cocaine is the same as for 28 grams of crack cocaine. The EQUAL Act would eliminate the disparity altogether.
In their letter, the bishops called for an end to long sentences for drug offenses and a focus on rehabilitation and treatment of offenders.
“As pastors, the Catholic bishops understand concerns regarding recidivism, substance abuse, and overdoses; yet public safety is not served by excessively long sentences. We believe these concerns would more effectively be addressed through programs that focus on root causes of crime through rehabilitation, treatment, education, literacy, and job-placement,” they wrote.
The EQUAL act has an uncertain future in the Senate. Since it has 11 Republican co-sponsors, it could pass as a stand-alone bill. However, the ranking Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, has his own bill to address disparities in drug sentencing. His legislation would reduce but not eliminate the disparity.
The prospect of the legislation’s passage as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is far from guaranteed even though the legislation enjoys bipartisan support. Unrelated amendments attached to the NDAA often get removed in the process of reconciling the House and Senate bills.
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