Activists, Lawmakers Push For Drug-Related Sentencing Reform

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 22: Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) speaks during a news conference to advocate for ending the Senate filibuster, outside the U.S. Capitol on April 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. With the Senate filibuster rules in place, legislative bills require 60 votes to end debate and advance, rather than a simple majority in the 100 member Senate. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Each year, there are nearly 1.4 million drug-related arrests made in the United States of America. In more than 85% of these arrests, drug possession is the most serious offense cited. Under current law, crimes such as drug possession can land people in jail for decades or even the rest of their lives.

For example, William R. Underwood was 17 when President Richard Nixon declared a "War On Drugs" throughout the country. Needing a way to survive, Underwood continued to sell drugs, but his decision landed him a life sentence without the possibility for parole. Thirty-three years later, Underwood is a completely different person. At 67 years old, he is a senior fellow with the Sentencing Project and was recently granted release from prison.

"From the beginning of my incarceration, I was surrounded by other men of color serving lifelong and other extreme sentences, including for drug offenses -- handed down under a mandatory minimum sentencing structure that never accounts for an individual's growth, rehabilitation and transformation while incarcerated," Underwood said as he met with members of Congress this month.

"Ten years is long enough to be able to reevaluate someone's growth and rehabilitation, and to begin to consider their release."

Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill tend to agree with Underwood. As the nation reflects on the 50th anniversary of Nixon announcing his war against drugs, Democrats Cori Bush and Bonnie Watson Coleman have introduced the Drug Policy Reform Act. If passed into law, the bill would federally decriminalize all drugs.

"A health-based approach to drug use and overdose is more effective, humane and cost-effective than criminal punishments. Subjecting people to criminal penalties, stigma, and other lasting collateral consequences because they use drugs is expensive, ruins lives, and can make access to treatment and recovery more difficult," the bill reads.

Like Underwood, Bush and Coleman grew up under Nixon's policies and that is what drives their efforts. Both congresswomen are working to ensure that sentencing does not keep people in jail long after they have made transformative strides in their lives.

"As a nurse, I've watched Black families criminalized for heroin use while white families are treated for opioid use. And now, as a Congresswoman, I am seeing the pattern repeat itself with fentanyl, as the (Drug Enforcement Administration) presses for an expanded classification that would criminalize possession and use," Bush said.

"The United States has not simply failed in how we carried out the War on Drugs - the War on Drugs stands as a stain on our national conscience since its very inception," Coleman added.

Bush and Coleman have also received support from Republican lawmakers. Alongside Democratic Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Bobby Scott, Republican Reps. Kelly Armstrong and Don Bacon have introduced legislation that would eliminate sentencing disparities for crack and cocaine-related offenses.

"There is no pharmacological difference, no chemical difference and no physical difference between how the body processes crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Crack cocaine has historically been used in inner-city communities and powder cocaine in affluent neighborhoods and the suburbs," Jeffries said.

"Put simply, the dividing line is race and geography. That does not justify the wide disparity in sentencing."

Get the latest news 24/7 on The Black Information Network. Listen now on the iHeartRadio app or click HERE to tune in live.

Sponsored Content

Sponsored Content