By David M. Greenwald
Washington, DC – In a week where bipartisanship in Washington appeared dead, the parties did come together in the House to pass the EQUAL Act by a final vote of 361-66. The act, officially, Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law or HR 1693, reduces the federal penalties for crack cocaine to the same level as those for powder, eliminating the racially apparent disparity that once stood at 100 to 1 between crack and powder.
It was then-Senator Joe Biden in 1986 who co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, that some have called disastrous and racially insensitive. That law created a huge 100 to 1 sentencing disparity which allowed someone possessing five grams of crack cocaine to receive the same five-year mandatory sentence as someone with 500 grams of power cocaine—despite the lack of pharmacological difference between the two substances.
“Today, House Republicans and Democrats joined together in passing the EQUAL Act, legislation that will once and for all eliminate the unjust federal crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity,” said Senators Cory Booker (NJ), Dick Durbin (IL), Rob Portman (OH), Thom Tillis (NC) and Patrick Leahy (VT) who sponsored the bill in the Senate.
They added, “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.”
Regina LaBelle, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in June, “The Biden-Harris Administration strongly supports eliminating the current disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.”
“The current disparity is not based on evidence yet has caused significant harm for decades, particularly to individuals, families, and communities of color,” LaBelle said. “The continuation of this sentencing disparity is a significant injustice in our legal system, and it is past time for it to end.”
The disparity has long been criticized because crack cocaine laws were disproportionately prosecuted against people of color.
As Senator Booker noted, “the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity has disproportionately impacted people of color.
“For over three decades, unjust, baseless and unscientific sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine have contributed to the explosion of mass incarceration in the United States and disproportionately impacted poor people, Black and Brown people, and people fighting mental illness,” Booker said. “At a time of expanding awareness of the realities of our unjust drug laws and growing consensus for changing them, I encourage my colleagues to support the EQUAL Act as a necessary step in repairing our broken criminal justice system.”
“The crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity disproportionally impacts people of color, with 81 percent of those convicted of federal crack offenses from 2015 to 2019 being Black. I was proud to author the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, a bipartisan compromise which significantly reduced the disparity. We need to end this injustice once and for all by eliminating the crack-powder disparity, as my original bill would have done,” Durbin said.
“After the murder of George Floyd, it was obvious that we as a country needed to work harder to stamp out racial discrimination in our justice system,” said Kevin Ring of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums). “Eliminating the crack-powder disparity, which has disproportionately and unfairly harmed Black families, was an obvious target. Today’s huge bipartisan vote reflects the overwhelming public support for eliminating the crack disparity. We hope the Senate acts quickly to remove this 35-year-old mistake from the criminal code.”
FAMM had played an active role in the previous efforts to rectify the imbalance back in 2010 which resulted in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, reducing the disparity from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1.
However, reformers at that time were unable to get it to parity.
FAMM was also instrumental in pushing for the First Step Act under President Trump, a reform that has reduced excessive sentences for more than 3,600 people, more than 90 percent of whom were Black.