Today Missouri lawmakers took a major step towards justice in their state when they passed legislation to reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. A bi-partisan success, two years in the making, today will go down as a good day for justice in Missouri.
Missouri’s crack-powder disparity law dates back to 1989. It was time when legislators and the public erroneously believed crack to be more dangerous and addictive than powder cocaine, and passed a spate of federal and state laws that mandated enormous discrepancies between the two. The assumptions about crack proved to be false, but the negative consequences of the laws were very real. African-Americans were disproportionally arrested, sentenced and incarcerated for long periods of time due to these laws.
While many states have sentencing disparities, Missouri, with a 75-to-1 ratio, has held the unfortunate distinction of having the highest crack/powder cocaine discrepancy in the country. That means that a person convicted in Missouri of selling 6 grams of crack cocaine faces the same prison sentence as someone who sells 450 grams of powder cocaine. The bill that passed today lowers that ratio to approximately 19-to-1 for sale of crack/powder cocaine, a better ratio – although the most fair ratio would be 1-to-1.
While today is an important step towards criminal justice reform in Missouri, it is not the end of the road. Even if Governor Nixon signs the bill into law, an unnecessary discrepancy still stands. And it’s not just in Missouri: 12 other states and the federal government still have sentencing discrepancies between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. These laws continue to fill our prisons with people serving extraordinarily and unnecessarily long sentences, and contribute to our nation’s epidemic of mass incarceration.