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Critics Of A Drug War-Era Law Say It Targets Black And Hispanic Americans

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Biden administration wants to end federal sentencing disparities for drug crimes. Currently, sentences involving crack cocaine are much harsher than those involving powder cocaine, and critics say the laws target Black and Hispanic Americans more than white Americans. Here's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: At a Senate hearing yesterday, Matthew Charles testified about his arrest in the 1990s for selling crack cocaine. It was a nonviolent crime, but he went to prison for more than three decades.

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MATTHEW CHARLES: I didn't need a sentence of 35 years, especially when 20 of those years were due to the fact that I sold one type of cocaine rather than another.

MANN: Congress passed the harsh law in response to the crack epidemic. Sentencing guidelines for crack are currently 18 times more severe than for powder cocaine. Studies show that led to far more people of color winding up behind bars. Yesterday, the Biden administration signaled support for a bill that would eliminate the more severe crack cocaine rules. Regina LaBelle, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, testified before the Senate panel.

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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: Other major pieces of drug war-era policy have already been dismantled, and this would represent another significant step. Some Republicans support the reform. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a former U.S. attorney, testified yesterday the current law is racially biased and erodes confidence in the criminal justice system. It's unclear whether the bill can garner enough support for passage in the gridlocked Senate. Several Republican lawmakers said yesterday easing punishment rules for crack cocaine sends the wrong message at a time when drugs smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico are killing tens of thousands of Americans every year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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