One of the proudest moments of my life was standing next to President Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office and watching him sign the First Step Act, a groundbreaking, bipartisan criminal-justice reform bill I helped negotiate.
After decades of over-criminalization and over-incarceration, the 2018 First Step Act took critical steps to reform federal prisons and sentencing guidelines, reduce recidivism, and help prisoners successfully reenter society, improving hundreds of thousands of lives.
But there’s still more work to be done. That’s why I support the First Step Implementation Act and the EQUAL Act.
The First Step Implementation Act of 2021, introduced by Senators Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley, builds upon the major provisions of the First Step Act by strengthening and clarifying sentencing reforms, providing necessary juvenile justice reforms, and restoring judicial discretion.
The Act would also make sentencing reforms under the First Step Act retroactive. I hope you’ll agree with me that correction must apply to all people, regardless of when they were convicted and sentenced.
Furthermore, Congress must end the disparity in federal sentencing between crack and powder cocaine which has disproportionately impacted communities of color for decades. That’s why I also support the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act, introduced by Senators Cory Booker and Dick Durbin.
In 1986, Congress created a drastic 100-to-1 sentencing disparity, despite the fact that crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug and one is no more harmful than the other. The Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 reduced the disparity to 18-1, but only applied the reform to pending and future cases. The First Step Act finally made this change retroactive. Of the 2,377 people who received retroactive relief, 91.6 percent were Black.
However, enhanced mandatory minimums for crack cocaine still more acutely impact Black Americans. In 2020, 76.8 percent of people sentenced for crack cocaine offenses were Black, despite available data from around the same time showing that White Americans accounted for 70.2 percent of those who used crack cocaine in 2018.
The EQUAL Act would finally equalize the treatment of crack cocaine and powdered cocaine offenses in Federal law, a change that has already occurred in over 40 states across the country. Importantly, the bill also makes this relief retroactive following individualized case review by federal courts, addressing the unjust punishments of the past.
Our mission at the Center for Advancing Opportunity is to move people living in fragile communities from promise to prosperity, providing research and developing solutions that will create change for the forgotten men and women of this country. This includes those in underprivileged communities, marginalized by poverty, and discouraged by unequal treatment of the law.
We must continue to strive to improve equality in the criminal justice system.
The First Step Implementation Act and the EQUAL Act will advance public safety, ensure government accountability, and foster human dignity across our nation, including in our country’s fragile communities.
• Ja’Ron Smith is the executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity.
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