The House on Tuesday passed a bill seeking to eliminate the disparity between sentences for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses — putting the onus on the Senate to end what critics call a failed enforcement policy that has unfairly and overwhelmingly favored whites.
H.R. 1693 — or the EQUAL Act — passed in the House by a 143-16 vote, with the only opposition coming from Republicans. The measure now heads to the Senate for consideration.
“Congress should pass the EQUAL Act to finally end the unfair sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine,” D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said moments before the vote. “By eliminating the disparity entirely, the bill would address longstanding racial discrimination in our criminal justice policy. This reform is overdue.”
The bipartisan bill eliminates the sentencing disparity, as well as allows those currently serving time for crack-related offenses to motion for reduced sentences.
Under current federal laws, individuals caught with 28 grams of crack receive the same sentence as someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine, despite the American Medical Association’s findings that there is no chemical difference between the two substances.
Starting with the 1980s version of the “war on drugs,” offenders caught with small amounts of crack — primary people of color — received prison sentences decades longer than those with powder cocaine, a group that is overwhelmingly white.
According to Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group, African Americans comprise 62.7% of all drug offenders admitted to state prison, while whites make up 36.7%.
Federal surveys and other data clearly show that this racial disparity bears scant relation to racial differences in drug offenses.
“There are, for example, five times more white drug users than Black,” Human Rights Watch officials wrote in a recent report. “Relative to population, Black men are admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is 13.4 times greater than that of white men. In large part because of the extraordinary racial disparities in incarceration for drug offenses, Black people are incarcerated for all offenses at 8.2 times the rate of whites.”
“One in every 20 black men over the age of 18 in the United States is in state or federal prison, compared to one in 180 white men,” they wrote. “Shocking as such national statistics are, they mask even worse racial disparities in individual states. For example, in seven states, Black individuals constitute between 80 and 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, Black men are admitted to prison on drug charges at 20 to 57 times greater than white men.
“These racial disparities in drug offenders admitted to prison skew the racial balance of state prison populations. In two states, one in every 13 Black men is in prison. In seven states, Black people are incarcerated at more than 13 times the rate of whites.”
The authors concluded that the imprisonment of African Americans for drug offenses is part of a more significant over-incarceration crisis in the United States.
“Although prison should be used as a last resort to protect society from violent or dangerous individuals, more people are sent to prison in the United States for nonviolent drug offenses than for crimes of violence,” they wrote.
The EQUAL Act also removes conspiracy charges that have contributed to numerous years of sentencing for drug offenses, particularly African Americans.
“For years, we have known that harsh drug sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine have created a racially disparate impact on Black communities,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the bill’s co-sponsor, said following passage of the measure. “The bipartisan EQUAL Act is the next step on the long road toward eliminating this unfair sentencing disparity.”