In an effort to undo one the gravest examples of racially biased drug war injustice, the House of Representatives voted Tuesday to end the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. HR 1693, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act of 2021, passed on a vote of 361-66, demonstrating bipartisan support, although all 66 "no" votes came from Republicans.Amidst racially tinged and "tough on drugs" political posturing around crack use in the early 1980s, accompanied by significant media distortions and oversimplications, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, cosponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) and signed into law by Ronald Reagan. Under that bill, people caught with as little as five grams of crack faced a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while people would have to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence.
While race neutral on its face, the law was disproportionately wielded as a weapon against African-Americans. Although similarly small percentages of both Blacks and Whites used crack, and there were more White crack users than Black ones, Blacks were seven times more likely to be imprisoned for crack offenses than Whites between 1991 and 2016. Between 1991 and 1995, in the depths of the drug war, Blacks were 13 times more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice meat grinder over crack. And even last year, the US Sentencing Commission reported that Black people made up 77 percent of federal crack prosecutions.
After years of effort by an increasingly broad alliance of drug reform, racial justice, human rights, religious and civic groups, passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act took a partial step toward reducing those disparities. The FSA increased the threshold quantity of crack cocaine that would trigger certain mandatory minimums -- instead of 100 times as much powder cocaine than crack cocaine needed, it changed to 18 times as much. The 2018 FIRST STEP Act signed by President Trump allowed people convicted before the 2010 law was passed to seek resentencing. And now, finally, an end to the disparity is in sight.
Reform advocates praised the bill's passage in the House.
"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," Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), said in a statement after the vote. "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."
"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. 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," ACLU senior policy counsel Aamra Ahmad said in a statement.
"Congress should continue to work to end the war on drugs, including ending mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately impact communities of color while failing to make us safer. Now that the House has taken this important action on the EQUAL Act, the Senate must quickly follow suit and finally end this racially unjust policy," she added.
The Senate version of the bill is S. 79, introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and cosponsored by fellow Democrat Dick Durbin (IL) and GOP Senators Rand Paul (KY), Rob Portman (OH), and Thomas Tillis (NC). After the vote, they prodded their Senate fellows to get moving.
"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," the bipartisan group said in a joint statement. "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. We applaud the House for its vote today and we urge our colleagues in the Senate to support this historic legislation."
The bill has the support of President Biden, who endorsed it June, but faces uncertain prospects in the Senate, as it needs at least ten Republican votes to not fall victim to a filibuster. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), who has shepherded sentencing reform bills through previously as Judiciary Committee chairman and is still the committee's top Republican, has spoken discouragely about the prospects. Still, the cause of criminal justice reform is one of the few areas where bipartisan deals are possible in Washington these days, and the current Congress is a long way from over.