On MLK day, I have a tradition of making time to listen to the full “I Have A Dream” speech by Dr. King, which always delivers and always has its own unique power each and every listen. In recent years, I have also used this day to explore Stanford University’s awesome collection of MLK Papers; in posts linked below, I have quoted from various renown speeches and writings with an emphasis on the intersection of the civil rights movement and criminal justice reform. But this recent news item from Wyoming has me today focused on a specific policy ask for advancing freedom and racial justice:
U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., became the seventh Republican co-sponsor of the EQUAL Act on Friday, which would fully and finally eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.
The two substances are virtually identical and equally dangerous, and yet crack carries a penalty that is 18 times that of powder cocaine, according to a news release. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 361-66, including 143 Republicans.
Lummis joined Republican Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, as co-sponsors. Advocates from across the political spectrum said the addition of Lummis is a clear indication that the EQUAL Act has the momentum needed to pass the Senate….
The EQUAL Act has support from groups across the political spectrum, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association, 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, Faith and Freedom Coalition, ALEC Action, R Street Institute, FreedomWorks and Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
With seven notable and diverse GOP senators serving now serving as co-sponsors for the EQUAL Act, I have to believe this bill could easily overcome any filibuster efforts and secure passage on the floor of the Senate (likely by the 5 to 1 margin that it secured passage in the House). So why is this not getting done ASAP? To its credit, the Biden Administration has testified in support of the EQUAL Act in the US Senate, but I have not heard Prez Biden himself (or VP Harris) lean into this issue at all. (Notably, if they want to focus on voting rights as a focal point for civil rights advocacy, they might also really advance the MLK legacy by taking on felony disenfranchisement. Moreover, they should try to get bipartisan bills like the EQUAL Act passed into law so that people who care about criminal justice reform can better understand why they should bother to vote at all.)
In part because US Sentencing Commission data reveal that “only” 1,217 persons were sentenced on crack trafficking offenses in FY 2020, which accounts for “only” 7.5% of all offenders sentenced for drug trafficking offenses, the import and impact of the EQUAL Act would not be as huge now as it might have been in years past. (In FY 2009, just before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the crack/powder disparity from 100-1 to 18-1, there were over 5,000 persons sentenced on crack offenses; indeed, more than 5,000 persons were sentenced each year on federal crack offenses through most of the 2000s.) Still, the USSC 2020 data show that over 93% of those sentenced for federal crack offenses are persons of color (with 77% black), so that there is still a profound inequitable impact from our federal sentencing scheme that still unfairly treats crack offenses as much more serious than functionally comparable powder offenses.
Links to some prior MLK Day posts:
- Should criminal justice reform be the new civil rights movement?
- Honoring MLK by asking hard questions
- Reflecting on race and criminal justice realities to honor MLK’s legacy
- Another reminder of race and criminal justice realities to honor MLK’s legacy
- NPR’s Fresh Air celebrates MLK Day by discussing The New Jim Crow
- Some still timely phrases from MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech for advocates of criminal justice reforms
- Some new quotes at the end of the latest MLK day
- What might Martin Luther King seek as the next step in federal criminal justice reform?
- Remembering and honoring the (always timely) poignancy of the great words of Dr. Martin Luther King
A few related posts on the EQUAL Act:
- An initial list of federal sentencing reforms to advance greater equity and justice for congressional consideration
- New efforts to fix the ugly old problem of sentencing disparity for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses
- GOP Gov and former DEA chief calls for Congress to “finally and fully end the disparity between crack and cocaine offenses”
- Depressing (and abridged) FSR reminder of just how long we have known crack sentences are especially whack
- US House votes 361-66 to pass today the EQUAL Act to end disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences
- After an overwhelming majority of GOP House delegation voted for EQUAL Act, can the Senate move quickly to finally right a 35-year wrong?
- Shouldn’t federal prosecutors already be doing what they can to minimize the unjust crack-powder sentencing disparity?
- Is it foolish to hope, after now 35 years, that Congress will soon fix the crack-powder federal sentencing disparity?