Merrick Garland
Attorney General Merrick Garland listens to a question as he leaves the podium after speaking at the Justice Department, Aug. 11, 2022, in Washington. Garland is moving to end sentencing disparities that have imposed harsher penalties for different forms of cocaine and worsened racial inequity in the U.S. justice system. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

US Attorney General Merrick Garland recently moved to end sentencing disparities that have imposed harsher penalties for crack (rock) cocaine than for cocaine in powder form, a disparity that severely worsened racial inequity in the U.S. justice system.

For decades federal law has imposed harsher sentences for crack cocaine even though it isn’t scientifically different from powder cocaine, creating “unwarranted racial disparities,” Garland wrote in a memo Friday to federal prosecutors. “They are two forms of the same drug, with powder readily convertible into crack cocaine.”

While changes to the law were stalled in Congress, Garland ordered prosecutors in nonviolent, low-level cases to file charges that avoid the mandatory minimum sentences that are triggered for smaller amounts of rock cocaine.

Criminal justice advocates and civil rights leaders alike nationwide commended Garland for the move. Still, they warned the fight to end this particular disparity is far from over, as Garland’s directives won’t become encoded into federal law unless Congress acts to make it so.

But the need for more work to make this newer, more equitable reality permanent did not stop some from lending their voices to celebrate Garland’s action.

“U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced plans to upend discriminatory federal policy that has disproportionately targeted Black communities by punishing crack users more harshly than powder cocaine users,” said Derrick Johnson, national president of the NAACP. “The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine had just one single purpose: to put Black Americans in jail. That’s it. 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 said the NAACP has been advocating to eliminate this racist disparity for decades and urging Garland to be a man of his word.

“At his 2021 confirmation hearing, Attorney General Garland said that he supported eliminating the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine-related offenses. By keeping this promise, today’s announcement is another step toward restoring faith in the criminal justice system for Black Americans.”

Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, released a similar statement. 

“The Attorney General’s announcement today ended years of long-standing policy that has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities for decades. According to press reports, the Attorney General will incorporate specific changes to prosecutorial guidelines related to crack and powder cocaine possession-related sentences. The sentencing disparity in cases involving crack and powder cocaine are relics of the War on Drugs era – one that has resulted in the overpopulation of our nation’s prison system and long-lasting trauma to thousands of families and communities.”

Morial’s statement also spoke to the work yet to be done to make sure this change becomes federal law via the EQUAL Act.

“However, while we applaud the DOJ’s efforts, the pressure must now be placed at Congress’ doorstep. Last year, the House of Representatives passed the EQUAL Act, a bill that would permanently eliminate the sentencing disparity in crack and powder cocaine cases. Despite having the support needed to pass the Senate, the legislation has been stalled. We urge the Senate to prioritize bringing the EQUAL Act to the floor to ensure these sentencing guidelines become law.” 

(AP contributed to this article)

Avatar photo

Aswad Walker

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...