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 and black families for far too long.
One story in particular illustrates the point. Matthew Charles spent years enduring firsthand the systemic disparities borne by black men. His story grabbed the nation’s attention: Arrested for selling crack in 1995, Matthew received a hefty 35-year sentence for his nonviolent crime. He became a Christian and a productive citizen while behind bars. After 16 years, he was released, but the US Department of Justice cited an error and reversed the decision, sending him back for two more years.
Nearly 140,000 people rallied to Matthew’s cause by signing a petition to support his release, and in 2019, he finally walked free for good. He was one of the first people released under the FIRST STEP Act, which allowed him to petition the court for a sentence consistent with the current 18-to-1 disparity for crack offenses. (It was an egregious 100 to 1 at the time he was sentenced.)
When Christians “remember those in prison,” as it says in Hebrews 13:3, we must evaluate the system that puts people behind bars (and for how long) and also speak up to the powers that be. Pursuing justice that reflects God’s heart is not optional. It’s central to the Christian life. God sees the downtrodden and the oppressed, and he cares about justice for all his children.
Every person dealing drugs, every person in addiction, and those who are affected by crime are all equally valuable in God’s sight. Christ followers are compelled to flee complacency and seek a restorative approach to justice. Jesus wouldn’t look the other way. Neither should we.
Heather Rice-Minus is the senior vice president of advocacy and church mobilization at Prison Fellowship. Justin E. Giboney is an attorney, political strategist, and president of the And Campaign.
They both serve as leaders within the Prayer & Action Justice Initiative, a diverse coalition of Christian organizations and leaders advocating for racial justice and nonpartisan criminal justice reform.