IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

House passes bill on sentencing disparity with bipartisan backing

Congress has a chance to permanently eliminate the cocaine sentencing disparity. The bill might even pass.


It's not at all common for the House to pass a bill on a contentious issue with bipartisan support, which made it all the more encouraging to see the EQUAL Act clear the chamber with relative ease yesterday. Reuters reported:

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a bill to permanently end the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder, a policy that has led to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans. In a bipartisan vote of 361-66, the House approved the EQUAL Act, short for Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law.

For those who may need a refresher, let's revisit some of our earlier coverage to review how we arrived at this point.

In the Reagan era, sentencing disparities in drug crimes reached levels that were difficult to believe. As the Associated Press reported several years ago, "[A] person selling five grams of crack faces the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as someone selling 500 grams of powder cocaine."

The racism at the heart of the policy was unsubtle, since most crack convictions involved Black defendants.

In 2010, at then-President Barack Obama's urging, congressional Democrats successfully reduced the disparity, though a Senate compromise prevented them from eliminating it altogether. This was an important step — it was the first time in four decades that Congress had repealed a mandatory minimum — but it was incomplete.

President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are eager to finish the job. Oddly enough, they may actually succeed.

Despite the controversy over the issue in years past, the debate has shifted to such a degree that the House passed the EQUAL Act yesterday with 143 Republicans joining a unanimous Democratic conference. Sure, 66 GOP members voted to leave the racist sentencing disparity in place, but they were heavily outnumbered.

The bill now heads to the Senate, where it will obviously face a Republican filibuster, but it's not outlandish to think there will be enough support to overcome the GOP opposition. The companion bill in the upper chamber is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, but it already has three Republican co-sponsors — Ohio's Rob Portman, Kentucky's Rand Paul, and North Carolina's Thom Tillis — and there's no reason to assume that number can't grow.

Reuters' report added, "If the EQUAL Act becomes law, it would permanently and entirely eliminate the crack-cocaine disparity, and it would retroactively apply to those who were previously sentenced, allowing people to take advantage of the new law."

Watch this space.