Prisoners’ rights advocates are applauding the House for passing a bill that ends the discrepancy in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, which they say singled out Blacks for longer sentences.
On Tuesday, the House by a wide margin of 361-66 passed the legislation, which seeks to eliminate inconsistent federal guidelines that activists have long flagged for treating crack cocaine offenses with greater severity than powder cocaine offenses.
The bill is expected to pass the Senate, where it needs 60 votes, and be signed into law by President Biden.
“It is past time for Congress to remedy the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine,” Sharon Dolovich, director of the Prison Law and Policy Program at UCLA, told The Washington Times. “This was plainly a racialized policy: Whites are more likely to be found with powder cocaine and Blacks with crack cocaine.”
Although the two forms of cocaine are equally harmful, activists have long asserted that from 1986 to 2010, convicted criminals needed to possess 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack to get a sentence of the same length.
Congress tweaked the sentencing guidelines once before, making it unclear if this week’s attempt will fix the issue.
In 2010, a similar bipartisan majority in Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity between crack and powder sentencing from 100:1 to 18:1.
Despite both political parties claiming victory at the time, legal experts said Blacks continued to be imprisoned longer than Whites for essentially the same crime.
“Congress created this unfortunate and unjustifiable disparity 35 years ago,” said Ira P. Robbins, co-director of the Criminal Justice Practice and Policy Institute at American University. “It’s a shame that it takes this long to remedy it.”
Jennifer Laurin, a law professor at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, said “no evidence has ever supported the notion that those who possessed crack rather than powder cocaine deserved or were deterred by the substantially longer sentences they received, and given the disparate impact that the enhancement for crack cocaine has on Black defendants.”
“This really is some of the lowest hanging fruit of criminal legal reform, at least in the federal system,” Ms. Laurin said.
According to Prison Fellowship, a Christian outreach to correctional facilities that lobbied both parties for the change, the “unjust sentences” have fueled over-incarceration in low-income communities and in communities of color, making criminal rehabilitation more challenging and neighborhoods more dangerous.
“These penalties are not only unfair, but they also demoralize and discourage incarcerated people from pursuing good citizenship behind bars,” James Ackerman, Prison Fellowship’s president, said in a statement.
Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, New York Democrat; Don Bacon, Nebraska Republican; Kelly Armstrong, North Dakota Republican; and Bobby Scott, Virginia Democrat, led the push for the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law, or EQUAL, Act.
“The EQUAL Act is sound, bipartisan criminal justice reform, and I thank my House colleagues on both sides of the aisle for its overwhelming passage,” Mr. Armstrong wrote in a tweet after Tuesday’s vote.
The National District Attorneys Association, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Justice Action Network, American Civil Liberties Union, and a variety of conservative, faith-based, law enforcement, and civil rights organizations lobbied both parties for the bill’s passage.
In justifying their position, lawmakers said the original arguments that crack cocaine was more addictive and dangerous than powder cocaine had proven inaccurate over time.
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