U.S. House passes bill to end disparities in crack cocaine sentences

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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.

The bill will now head to the Senate, where criminal justice advocates believe it has a chance of passing. The Justice Department also previously endorsed the bill.

The disparities between crack and powder cocaine date back to war-on-drugs policies in the 1980s.

In 1986, Congress passed a law to establish mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking offenses, which treated crack and cocaine powder offenses using a 100 to 1 ratio. Under that formula, a person convicted for selling 5 grams of crack cocaine was treated the same as someone who sold 500 grams of powder cocaine.

The 100 to 1 ratio was later reduced in 2010 under the Fair Sentencing Act, down to 18 to 1.

In 2018 during President Donald Trump's administration, Congress passed the First Step Act, which sought to help more lower-level crack cocaine offenders take advantage of the less stringent ratio and apply retroactively for sentence reductions.

Earlier this year, however, the Supreme Court ruled that low-level crack cocaine offenders could not retroactively apply to have their sentences reduced.

U.S. Sentencing Commission data has showed that 87.5 percent of the people serving federal prison time for drug trafficking offenses primarily involving crack cocaine were Black. An investigation by Ashbury Park Press and USA Today found that Black users and dealers were arrested more frequently and handed stricter prison sentences than whites accused of drug crimes.

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

"Thirty-five years of the most discriminatory policy in federal law is enough," said FAMM President Kevin Ring, whose organization opposes mandatory minimum sentencing.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

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