A grassroots coalition of Iowa advocacy groups this week called on U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and other lawmakers to pass legislation that would close a drug sentencing disparity they say has left a racist legacy from the war on drugs.
The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill this fall -- with all four members of Iowa's delegation voting in favor -- to permanently end the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder.
The policy has led to the disproportionate incarceration of Black and brown Americans, affecting thousands of Iowa families, said Davenport resident LaDrina Wilson, Dream Corps JUSTICE Empathy Network leader.
The national prison reform group seeks to close outdated and unneeded federal prisons, re-evaluate the role of prisons in the criminal justice system and "open up new doors of opportunity for all."
According to a 2020 Report by the Iowa Department of Corrections, 25% of inmates in state prisons are Black, while Black people comprise less than 5% of Iowa's population. And according to The Sentencing Project and American Civil Liberties Union, Iowa consistently has one of the highest rates in the nation for imprisoning people of color, with Black individuals 11 times more likely to be incarcerated in Iowa than whites.
"I recognize that those that are incarcerated do not constitute all drug charges, but what I would say is we know statistically there's been a disparate impact as it relates to drug sentencing and drug charges in Iowa and across the country," Wilson said. That despite similar rates of drug use by Black and white Americans.
"If we know there is inequity in the system, we have a responsibility to address those inequities," and begin "unifying Black families so we can begin a break from these cycles," Wilson said.
The EQUAL Act, however, faces an uncertain future in the evenly divided Senate.
The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act created a 100 to 1 disparity between the amount of crack cocaine that triggers a federal mandatory minimum sentence versus powder cocaine. Selling five grams of crack triggered a mandatory a five-year sentence, where as 500 grams of powder cocaine was required to trigger the same sentence.
The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reformed the disparity to 18 to 1 instead of 100 to 1, and the 2018 First Step Act made the reform retroactive, allowing people incarcerated for crack offenses to apply for resentencing.
Now, a broad coalition of justice reform advocates wants to do away with the disparity altogether and provide the opportunity for retroactive sentence reduction. The measure has support among groups as diverse as the ACLU, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the American Bar Association and associations representing prosecuting and criminal defense attorneys.
"We've found a partner in Senator Chuck Grassley," who has been a strong ally on criminal justice reform, said Dream Corps JUSTICE Policy Director Kandia Milton. "Senator Grassley has expressed continued openness" to eliminating sentencing disparities.
Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been pushing a package of criminal justice reform measures that could reduce the sentencing difference. Grassley co-sponsored the 2010 legislation signed into law by former President Barack Obama that changed the federal government’s sentencing ratio to 18 to 1.
Iowa's senior senator, however, told reporters in September he was doubtful eliminating the sentencing disparity would fly in the Senate.
Grassley's office did not respond to messages Friday seeking comment for this article.
"I think there's a possibility of reducing the 18 to 1 differential we have now,” he said during a weekly call with Iowa reporters Sept. 29, "but I don’t think one-to-one can pass."
Grassley said he was not willing to reduce the sentencing disparity if it would sinks the criminal justice reform package he and Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin have been working to pass.
Backers say the two types of cocaine are pharmacologically the same, varying primarily only in texture. Thus, the sentencing disparity makes no justifiable sense, despite perceptions that crack is more dangerous.
Opponents argue the disparity exists because of difference in recidivism, addiction and violent crime associated with the effects of crack versus powder cocaine, and that heavier sentences for crack cocaine protect public safety.
"Locking people up for possession of crack cocaine hasn't made our society more safe, nor has it done anything to reduce recidivism rates," Milton said. "The absence of a father in the household is not good for any of us."
Wilson added: "People need to be reunited with their families," when "we don't have data that supports" harsher sentences for crack cocaine.
"There's more to public safety than just locking people up, because they do come back into our community," she said. "And so we need to look for better answers."
-- Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter James Q. Lynch contributed to this article