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Biden Backs Bill To End Sentencing Disparities For Crack And Powder Cocaine


The punishment for selling crack cocaine in the U.S. is far more severe compared to the penalties for powder cocaine. Critics say that has meant Black and brown Americans are spending far more time behind bars compared with white Americans. Well, today, the Biden administration backed a bill that would eliminate this disparity, further dismantling the harsh policies that were implemented during the war on drugs. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins us now to talk about all this.

Hey, Brian.


CHANG: So can you just remind us how we got here? Like, why is crack cocaine treated differently from powder cocaine?

MANN: Yeah. So in the 1980s, there was this big crack cocaine scare. And Congress responded by passing a law that mandated long prison sentences even for the sale of tiny amounts of crack. But federal data show that law wound up primarily targeting Black and Hispanic Americans, who sometimes spend decades behind bars, even for nonviolent drug crimes. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who chairs the judiciary committee, spoke about this during a hearing this morning. And he called the policy a disaster.


DICK DURBIN: At the height of the crack scare, facts fell victim to fear. And fear inspired misguided and discriminatory policy. To this day, it is one of the worst votes I ever cast.

MANN: And there was an attempt, Ailsa, to reform these laws about 11 years ago. But even today, crack sentencing guidelines are 18 times more severe than for powder cocaine.

CHANG: Wow, 18 times more severe - well, it has been noted frequently that when Joe Biden was a senator, he did vote in favor of tough punishments for crack cocaine. So tell us what his administration's saying now.

MANN: Yeah, today, the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Regina LaBelle, testified that President Biden now believes this policy should be eliminated.


REGINA LABELLE: The current disparity is not based on evidence. It has caused significant harm for decades, particularly for individuals, families and communities of color. And it's past time for it to end.

MANN: The Justice Department also supports scrapping these sentencing disparities. And really, there's near unanimous support among drug policy experts and Democratic lawmakers that it's time to make this change.

CHANG: Well, what about Republicans? I mean, is there bipartisan support for reform?

MANN: You know, some Republicans do want this policy changed. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who's a former U.S. attorney, testified today that the current law is racially biased and unjust. He said these disparities are so unfair they erode trust in the criminal justice system. But there are a lot of Republicans leery of this. They say scaling back tough sentencing laws for crack could send the wrong message to Mexican drug cartels. Here's Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa speaking today.


CHUCK GRASSLEY: Do you think that lowering the sentencing ratio of crack to powder cocaine could make it easier or more appealing for Mexican drug cartels to smuggle cocaine across the border?

MANN: But experts say - and they testified again today - that there's no evidence that these tough crack sentencing rules had any effect on drug smugglers or dealers.

CHANG: Well, what do you think, Brian? I mean, given that there is some partisan divide, do you think this bill has any chance of passing?

MANN: It's not going to happen fast. Some Republicans actually say they want to explore moving in the opposite direction, eliminating sentencing disparities by actually making powder cocaine punishments more severe. That really runs against the direction the Biden administration has signaled it wants to go. You know, in addition to supporting the elimination of these harsh crack cocaine sentences, the White House's budget proposal shifts a lot of the drug focus and spending to treatment and health care and away from these punishments.

CHANG: Brian Mann is NPR's addiction correspondent.

Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.