By Kristin Trent and Sunny Zhou
WASHINGTON, DC – In a letter addressed to President Joe Biden this week, 13 faith and justice organizations urged the president to grant clemency for people convicted of federal crack cocaine sentences.
Signatories include justice groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and Drug Policy Alliance, while faith organizations include Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Multifaith Initiative to End Mass Incarceration and National Council of Churches.
“It is unacceptable that we know of glaring injustices in our criminal legal system, but see little action from those with the responsibility to change the law,” the organizations wrote. “[Y]ou have the power of executive clemency to grant pardons and commutations to thousands of people impacted by unjustly punitive crack cocaine sentencing guidelines.”
In 1986, Congress adopted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act following a moral panic after a rising basketball star died of drug overdose, said the ACLU, writing, “[A] person with a small amount of crack faced the same sentence as a person with 100 times that weight in powder cocaine, “even though the two substances are chemically identical.”
“[A] dramatic shift occurred in the incarceration trends for African Americans, relative to the rest of the nation,” the ACLU’s Crack Cocaine Report found of racial disparities in the aftermath of the 1986 act, adding, “This trend effectively transformed federal prisons into institutions increasingly dedicated to incarcerating African Americans.”
Senior Policy Associate for the Legal Defense Fund Kristina Roth wrote “[f]or decades, Black communities have been disproportionately surveilled and terrorized by the War on Drugs. This targeted law enforcement attack has resulted in the extended and indefensible incarceration of thousands of Black people.”
The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the disparity to 18:1 and under President Biden’s direction, and prosecutors were instructed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to not automatically charge crack and powder cocaine offenses differently, said the ACLU, adding this disparity still persists in spite of strong bipartisan and presidential support.
For those who have already been convicted, the ACLU noted that “[t]housands of people are serving out harsh, unjustifiable sentences because of the crack disparity, while thousands of others still face legal discrimination from governments, landlords, and employers because of a criminal record for a federal crack conviction.”
Amy Spitalnick, CEO of Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote, “Jewish values, and basic human decency, are threatened by the inhumanity of mass incarceration and criminalization – and there are few better illustrations of the racist underpinnings of the failed War on Drugs than this sentencing disparity.”
“[E]ven for those who have never seen the inside of a prison, the war on drugs creates a profound moral injury — making them complicit in a system that perpetuates the oppression of Black people and calls it safety,” said Cynthia W. Roseberry, acting director of the ACLU’s Justice Division.
“We are asking President Biden to show moral leadership by granting clemency to people with federal crack convictions. We can chart a course that creates safety and justice for all of us, and it starts with accountability for past wrongs,” added Roseberry.