North Dakota lawmakers, advocates push for equal sentencing in federal cocaine and crack crimes

Published: Jul. 12, 2022 at 4:57 PM CDT
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - In the U.S., people facing federal crack charges receive much longer prison sentences than those with cocaine.

In 1986, Congress passed a law effectively determining crimes involving crack-cocaine would have 100 times harsher prison sentences than those involving the same amount of powdered cocaine. In 2018, the Fair Sentencing Act shortened prison sentences and reduced the disparity to 18 to 1.

Yet according to research published in the National Library of Medicine, crack cocaine and cocaine powder are essentially the same substance in different forms, but crack users tend to be of lower socioeconomic status than powder cocaine users. That’s why lawmakers through the EQUAL Act (S. 79 | H.R. 1693) are discussing how to further address the disparity in sentencing.

“What we know now is that this disparity in penalties hasn’t made Americans safer. In fact, it has had a really troubling impact, particularly on communities of color who are more likely to use one substance over the other,” said Kate Trammell, vice president of advocacy with Prison Fellowship.

Congressman Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), says although he practiced 10 years as a criminal defender and never worked on a federal crack case from North Dakota, these kinds of sentencing decisions still impact everyone.

“The reality is that any time there is unequal treatment and disparities in sentencing it affects everybody. It affects taxpayers. I mean it is federal prison. It’s federal taxpayer dollars,” said Congressman Kelly Armstrong (R-ND).

Prison time, if the EQUAL Act passes, would be in the same range for the two drugs. Congressman Armstrong says the change would apply to mainly low-level addict dealers and not cartels, or others at the top, who already exceed mandatory minimum sentences for their crimes.

“This isn’t being soft on crime. This is being smart on crime. This has the ability to do what I think the federal criminal justice system should do. It should hold people accountable. It should prepare them for reintegration into society. And it should treat disparate racial groups equally,” added Congressman Armstrong.

“If you commit a crime, the punishment should fit that crime. And what we have here is a really simple instance where that’s not the case,” added Trammell.

Trammell is with the faith-based organization Prison Fellowship. She says data suggests that eliminating the disparity could increase public confidence in law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts — and ultimately, could help increase cooperation and reduce crime and prison costs.

The EQUAL Act passed the House (361-66) last September and is in the Senate. If the Senate passes the act, it would then need the president’s signature.

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