A Crack in the System: Why Unfair Drug Sentencing Laws Disrupt Racial Justice

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In the push for prison reform, Christians can stand against penalties that disproportionately affect minorities.

The last few years have sounded the alarm for racial justice in America. We’ve seen the brutality of discrimination in our streets, our schools, and especially our courtrooms. Some of the most insidious forms of systemic injustice stem from unequal drug sentencing laws that disproportionally penalize blacks.

Although crack and powder cocaine are chemically almost identical and one is not more physically harmful than the other, nonetheless federal penalties for the two are calculated quite differently. Today it takes 18 times more powder cocaine than crack to earn the same sentence in federal prison. This 18-1 sentencing disparity is not arbitrary, since crack is more accessible in marginalized communities of color.

In 2019, 81 percent of federal defendants with crack cocaine charges were black. As a result, the federal crack-powder disparity has contributed to the overincarceration of black Americans. Their lives have been devastated by it.

As Christian ministry leaders who are involved with justice reform, we are hoping that Congress and President Joe Biden will pass and sign the recently introduced EQUAL Act (not to be confused with the Equality act) to end this sentencing disparity for good. Proverbs tells us that “the Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him” (11:1). We believe this significant piece of legislation will help bring balance.

Unjust sentencing has extended a long history of racial imbalances in the justice system. Though rates of drug use and trafficking are similar across all races, black males often face harsher-than-average sentences and fewer opportunities for reduced sentences, reduced charges, or plea agreements. This discrimination has harmed black communities …

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