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Senate Urged to 'Finish the Job' After House Votes to End Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

Civil rights advocates on Tuesday called on the U.S. Senate to follow in the House's footsteps after the lower chamber overwhelmingly voted to eliminate the sentencing disparity between offenses involving crack and powder cocaine. 

The House passed the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act (H.R. 1693) in a bipartisan vote of 361-66, with only Republicans voting against the legislation. 

The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) in March, would allow people previously convicted of crack cocaine offenses to petition for sentence reductions. 

"Failed 'tough on crime' policies have had a markedly disproportionate impact on communities of color," said the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the ACLU in a letter (pdf) to Congress on Monday. "Today, [the Bureau of Prisons] reports that 38% of its current prison population is Black, and 30.2% is Hispanic—an enormous disparity given that both groups combined represent only about one third of the nation's population." 

The disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences has persisted for more than three decades, following former President Ronald Reagan's signing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The law implemented a minimum sentence of five years for the possession of at least five grams of crack and at least 500 grams of the much more expensive powder cocaine. 

With crack cocaine more accessible in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, within four years of the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the average federal drug-related prison sentence was 49% higher for Black Americans than for white Americans. 

"For 35 years, the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, based on neither evidence nor science, has resulted in higher sentences that are disproportionately borne by Black families and communities," Aamra Ahmad, ACLU senior policy counsel, said Tuesday. "We applaud the House for passing the EQUAL Act, which will finally end that disparity, including for thousands of people still serving sentences under the unjust disparity who would now have the opportunity to petition courts for a reduced sentence." 

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The ACLU called on the Senate to "quickly follow suit and finally end this racially unjust policy." 

The Senate's version of the EQUAL Act is sponsored by six lawmakers from both parties—Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio). 

"Enjoying broad support from faith groups, civil rights organizations, law enforcement, and people of all political backgrounds, this commonsense bill will help reform our criminal justice system so that it better lives up to the ideals of true justice and equality under the law," said the senators. "We applaud the House for its vote today and we urge our colleagues in the Senate to support this historic legislation." 

If all the Democrats in the evenly divided Senate support the legislation, the party would need at least 10 Republicans to join them in voting for it. 

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"Passing the EQUAL Act is not a policy win, it's a people win," said Kevin Ring, president of the FAMM Foundation, which works with family members of incarcerated people to advocate for criminal justice reform. 

"Real people want their husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters home sooner," Ring said. "Let's finish the job."

Julia Conley
Common Dreams