I was very excited when earlier this week the US House voted 361-66 to pass the EQUAL Act to end the statutory disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences. I was also pleased to see this follow-up press release from my GOP senator headlined “Portman, Senate Co-Sponsors Laud House Passage of EQUAL Act.” Here is the text:
U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the bipartisan Senate sponsors of the EQUAL Act, issued the below statement following the passage of the EQUAL Act in the House of Representatives by a bipartisan vote of 361-66.
“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. 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.”
Ohio eliminated the crack-powder sentencing disparities back in 2011.
Along with bipartisan support in Congress, this landmark legislation has support from groups across the political spectrum, including the National District Attorneys Association, Americans for Tax Reform, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Prison Fellowship, Due Process Institute, Americans for Prosperity, FAMM, Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, Digital Liberty, Faith and Freedom Coalition, ALEC Action, R Street Institute, National Association for Public Defense, American Civil Liberties Union, Sentencing Project, Fair Trials, FreedomWorks, Center for American Progress, Drug Policy Alliance, Jesuit Conference, Black Public Defender Association, Dream Corps JUSTICE, Federal Public and Community Defenders, Innocence Project, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Taxpayers Protection Alliance, and Tzedek Association.
So three notable GOP Senators from pretty red states are co-sponsors of the EQUAL Act in the Senate, and a wide array of right-leaning advocacy groups are also eager to see this pass. And, to highlight again the House vote specifics, roughly twice as many GOP reps voted for the EQUAL Act as voted against it. If this same breakdown happened on the Senate side, there would be over 80 total votes for passage of the EQUAL Act in the Senate. Even if only half of GOP Senators support the EQUAL Act, that makes 75 votes in the Senate. And, of course, only 10 GOP votes would be needed to end any filibuster, which I presume Senator Cotton would launch to gum up the works, to permit a floor vote.
So, if ever there was a federal criminal justice reform bill that should be a relatively easy lift, I would hope this is it. And yet, I have not seen any advocates talk as if Senate action is imminent or even all that likely. As I mentioned to a Vice News reporter who wrote here about the House vote, an average of more than four persons are sentenced in federal court for crack offenses every single week day, and many tends of thousands of (disproportionately black) offenders have been sentenced unfairly now for a full 35 years since the crack/powder disparity first became law way back in 1986. There is no need or value to waiting to finally make all federal cocaine offenses subject to the same sentencing rules, and so I hope the Senate might move swiftly. But, as is always the case it seems when in comes to Congress, I do not think there is reason to be optimistic. Sigh.
(Oh, and more more point while I am bemoaning Beltway activities (or lack thereof): even if the EQUAL Act were to move forward quickly in the Senate, I do not think it currently provides emergency authority for the US Sentencing Commission to change the crack guidelines AND the US Sentencing Commission is currently inert until Prez Biden nominates a slate of Commissioners and those folks garner Senate confirmation. Fortunately, because the guidelines are advisory, district judges could ignore the disparate crack guidelines even while still in place after passage of the EQUAL Act. But then again, those disparate guidelines can and should be ignored now, and yet they are still followed in many cases and still create a benchmark that shapes and distorts the sentencing process.)