Topic: Criminal Defense
N.Y. Congressman Leads Bipartisan Effort To Reform Crack Cocaine Sentencing Inequities.
On September 28, 2021 legislation initially proposed by our own Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) – the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act (EQUAL Act) – passed the U.S. House of Representatives by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 361 to 66. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) thereafter introduced the EQUAL Act to the U.S. Senate on January 28, 2021. If passed by the Senate and signed into law by the President, the EQUAL Act would finally end the long-reviled disparity between the penalties for powder and crack cocaine that decimated a generation of minority groups, principally young African-Americans. Simply put, under the EQUAL Act, judges would no longer be required to punish those convicted of crack cocaine offenses more harshly than those convicted of powder cocaine offenses.
In April 2022, Rep. Jeffries, the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, was joined by all House Members of the Congressional Black Caucus in urging the Senate to vote on the pending legislation. To date, the EQUAL Act has the support of 56 Senators, just shy of the 60 Senators needed to pass the law and send it to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature.
What Would the EQUAL Act Do?
The EQUAL Act offers a legislative solution to the unjust and arguably racially disparate penalties precipitated by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created disproportionally harsh federal mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine crimes (as contrasted with powder cocaine crimes).
This legislation – misguided from its inception – essentially penalized those who dealt in 1 gram of crack cocaine (roughly the same weight as a couple sugar cubes) the same as those who dealt in 100 grams of powder cocaine – known as the “100-1 Ratio.”
In 2010 former President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, reducing the “100-1” ratio to “18:1” – a change that was made retroactively applicable in 2018 by the Fair Sentencing Act (signed by former President Trump) to those who were sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act became the law of the land and therefore were still languishing in prison serving exceedingly long sentences that Congress and the President had already determined were unwarranted and unfair. Still, until the EQUAL Act is passed by the Senate and signed by the President, a difference – albeit less disparate – will still exist between crack and powder cocaine offenses.
For additional information, check out “Obama Can Fix the Race Gap in Sentencing Law”
The EQUAL Act Would End The Crack vs. Cocaine Sentencing Gap
If signed into law, the EQUAL Act would level the playing field for all defendants convicted of cocaine-related crimes –especially Black Americans – whether that cocaine is in powder or rock form.
As recently as 2019, 81% of people convicted in federal courts nationwide for crack-related crimes were African-American. However, over two-thirds of crack users were white and Hispanic people who weren’t necessarily convicted.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the average federal drug sentence for African-Americans was 11% higher than those for whites before Congress passed laws distinguishing between crack and powder cocaine in 1986. Just four years later, the average sentence imposed on Black defendants was 49% higher.
The Benefits of the EQUAL Act
In my two decades of defending people charged with a variety of drug offenses (including both crack and powder cocaine), I have witnessed countless families torn apart by unfair sentencing laws. Implementation of the EQUAL Act will not lead to the early release of those convicted of drug crimes. Rather, it will bring equity to an area of the law that has long been asymmetrical and will result in the earlier reunification of families after those convicted of drug crimes pay their “debt to society,” all the while saving American taxpayers millions (perhaps hundreds of millions) that can, if the EQUAL Act is passed, be redirected to, among other things, social and education programs that reduce overall crime rates. Indeed, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s ‘Estimate of the Impact of H.R. 1691, The EQUAL Act of 2021’ reports that the average sentence will decrease by 2.5 years if the law is enacted. That reduction translates into 21,300 fewer years being served in prison over a ten-year period.
Another benefit of the EQUAL Act is that it would be retroactively applicable, meaning that all those who are serving time for crack cocaine offenses under either the 100:1 Ration or 18:1 Ratio will have a chance at (but are not guaranteed) a sentence reduction to bring the length of the prison terms they are serving in line with the new law – that is, objectively more equitable prison terms.
There’s Broad Support for the EQUAL Act
People are beginning to realize that having overly harsh penalties for the same illicit substance is a misguided approach to drug crime enforcement. As such, the EQUAL Act has garnered enthusiastic support across the spectrum.
Organizations such as the Major City Police Chiefs Association and National District Attorneys Association have expressed their backing. Right-leaning groups, including the Americans for Tax Reform and the American Legislative Exchange Council, have also announced their approval.
Moreover, two Senatorial co-sponsors of the EQUAL Act are rated among the nine most conservative members. While some agree that equalizing the penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses makes sense, some also want increased penalties for all crimes, not just narcotics offenses.
Even right-center states like Ohio and South Carolina have reduced punishments for crack cocaine in recent years to lessen the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. Indeed, more than 40 states already treat both forms of cocaine the same under state law.
Where Does the EQUAL Act Stand?
Despite its benefits, time is running out for passing the EQUAL Act in the current Congress. The legislative calendar ends on January 3, 2023, meaning little time remains for it to gain Senate approval.
If the Senate does pass the legislation, it would need to be signed by President Joe Biden, who has indicated his support.
The EQUAL Act is Good. More Reform Is Still Needed
The EQUAL Act is a step forward in correcting sentencing laws that have proven misguided over time and in ending unfair drug crime penalties. And while we wait to learn the law’s fate, it is not the only criminal justice system reform proposed in the United States. Bail reform, mental health counseling and vocational and educational opportunities for inmates are just a few of the changes being pursued that could impact how our society responds to the natural and pressing needs of incarcerated individuals.
Need Help from a Criminal Defense Lawyer?
If you have been charged with a cocaine-related crime in New York or any drug offense, having an experienced New York criminal defense lawyer by your side is imperative. From protecting your civil rights to arguing your case in court, Protass Law can provide guidance and aggressive representation.