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Prison Fellowship joins campaign to reform cocaine sentencing guidelines

The president of the evangelical prison ministry said ‘action is needed now to correct this now long-standing injustice.’

Prisoners from Sacramento County await processing after arriving at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, California, on Feb. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

(RNS) — Prison Fellowship has joined forces with criminal justice and prosecutorial organizations to support bipartisan efforts to reduce disparities in sentences that punish Black Americans more harshly than white Americans.

The #EndtheDisparity campaign, a partnership with organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has recently focused on the 18-1 ratio in federal sentencing for distributing crack cocaine versus the drug in powdered form. Advocates are pushing for a 1-1 ratio instead.

“We think this is so important an issue and that action is needed now to correct this now long-standing injustice,” said Prison Fellowship President and CEO James Ackerman at an online roundtable with journalists on Tuesday (March 9).

Prison Fellowship President and CEO James Ackerman. Courtesy photo

Prison Fellowship President and CEO James Ackerman. Courtesy photo

After reading from the biblical Book of Proverbs that “The Lord abhors dishonest scales but accurate weights are his delight,” Ackerman said the disparities in cocaine sentencing are unfair to all Americans but especially to African Americans.


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According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 81% of crack cocaine trafficking offenders in 2019 were Black, when African Americans comprise a much lower percentage of the U.S. population.

“Think about it: the African American community represents 13.4% of the citizenry of America but 81% of the people convicted for crack cocaine distribution in 2019 alone were African American,” said Ackerman, leader of the 45-year-old evangelical prison ministry founded by former prisoner and Nixon aide Chuck Colson.

“That’s not right and this has existed too long.”

The campaign comes at a time when legislation is being discussed on Capitol Hill that would end the sentencing disparities.

In January, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced the EQUAL Act, whose acronym stands for “Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law.”

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of House members — Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Bobby Scott, D-Va., Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., and Don Bacon, R-Neb — introduced the House version of the bill.

Previously, Durbin introduced the Fair Sentencing Act, which passed in 2010 and reduced the disparity from 100-to-1, when someone sentenced for distributing 5 grams of crack cocaine served the same amount of time — five years in prison — as someone who was apprehended for distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine.

William Curtis. Courtesy photo

William Curtis. Courtesy photo

William Curtis, who was sentenced when the 100-to-1 disparity was in force, told reporters during the online roundtable discussion that he saw the differences in treatment while he was in prison for 20 years and six months for selling $20 and $50 rocks of cocaine.

“I sat in prison many a day and saw people sentenced under powder — white people sentenced under powder — get out of prison, go home, turn around and come back for doing the same thing and then they would get out of prison again, go home, turn around and come back and I’m still here,” he recalled.

Curtis, a Black man, is now continuing the rest of his 327-month sentence under home confinement in Tennessee due to COVID-19 precautions.

FAMM President Kevin Ring said the “political compromise” attained previously to reduce the disparity to 18-to-1 needs to be followed by a complete elimination of the difference in sentencing for distribution of two different forms of the drug.

“The crack powder disparity is the most obnoxious of the discriminatory aspects in our federal justice system,” he said. “Now it is time to finish the job and we think this is a matter of criminal justice and racial justice at a time where our country needs both.”

Heather Rice-Minus, Prison Fellowship’s senior vice president of advocacy and church mobilization, noted that more than 40 states already have laws with 1-1 ratios for punishments related to powder and crack cocaine.

Ring and roundtable participant Frank Russo, director of government and legislative affairs of the National District Attorneys Association, called the disparity a “moral issue” that needs to be addressed.

Russo said his association of local and state prosecutors endorses “common-sense reforms such as the EQUAL Act to improve our nation’s justice system and ensure that we are applying justice equitably.”


RELATED: Prison Fellowship spearheads ‘Second Chance Month’ to help ex-convicts


This story has been updated.