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U.S. Senate talks on cocaine sentencing reform hit roadblock

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2022-12-19T17:46:01Z

The exterior of the U.S. Capitol is seen at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2022. REUTERS/Sarah Silbiger

Negotiations in the U.S. Senate to narrow sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine have stalled, two sources said on Monday, in what could prove a blow for criminal justice reform advocates.

Earlier in December, Reuters reported Senate negotiators reached a tentative deal to narrow the sentencing disparity between the two substances and planned to tuck the measure into a year-end bill funding the government.

Mandatory minimum sentences for crack-related offenses are currently 18 times lengthier than those for powder cocaine, which has led to the disproportionate incarceration of Black Americans since the policy was adopted almost four decades ago.

Under the deal, reached by bipartisan negotiators, that proportion would have been narrowed to 2.5 to 1, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss private talks.

But in the last three days, negotiations to tuck the measure into the year-end spending bill, considered key for its passage, have largely ground to a halt, the sources said.

A Friday decision by Attorney General Merrick Garland to instruct federal prosecutors to end disparities in the way they charge offenses involving crack and powder upset some Republican legislators, who accused the Justice Department of usurping congressional authority.

Separately, bipartisan negotiators have encountered unexpected opposition from top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell, one of the people said.

“A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including myself, just recently came to an agreement on statutory changes that could possibly be included in the year-end funding bill,” Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee, said in a Friday statement.

“That hard-won compromise has been jeopardized because the attorney general inappropriately took lawmaking into his own hands.”

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

McConnell’s office declined to comment.

One source said that last-minute negotiations to tuck the measure into the year-end spending bill continued on Monday morning, but inclusion was no longer seen as likely.

In 1986, Congress passed a law to establish mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking offenses, which treated crack and powder cocaine offenses using a 100-to-1 ratio. Under that formula, a person convicted for selling 5 grams of crack cocaine was treated the same as someone who sold 500 grams of powder cocaine. That proportion was narrowed to 18 to 1 in 2010.

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