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Discouraging report on a possible last gasp for this Congress to pass the EQUAL Act


I have not blogged much lately about the EQUAL Act to reform federal crack cocaine sentencing because, as detailed in posts here and here from the first half of 2022, it seems some key Republican Senators oppose its passage and some key Democratic Senators seem unwilling to try to navigate the politics needed to get the bill to the desk of President Biden.  When the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in Sept 2021, by a tally of 361-66, to pass the EQUAL Act to equalize powder and crack cocaine sentences, I thought the long ugly stain of the crack/powder disparity might soon be coming to an end.  But, 15 months later, as detailed in this new Politico piece, it sounds like the EQUAL Act has no chance of making it through the Senate and even a bill to just further reduce the crack/powder disparity seems uncertain and underwhelming:

With only a few weeks left in the session, add a final push for reducing the federal sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses to a long end-of-the-year to-do list.  It’s not proving easy.  Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is playing a leading role in the talks, declined to discuss the details Monday night, only saying “we’re in a tough negotiation moment right now.”  He added: “I just want to make sure that I focus on doing what I can to get something over the line, as opposed to talking about strategy.”

There was some discussion about attaching a potential agreement onto the National Defense Authorization Act, but a GOP aide told Huddle that’s no longer expected, leaving a broader end-of-the-year spending deal as the last option.

While criminal justice reform advocates want to see that federal sentencing disparity completely eliminated, citing legislation that passed the House last year by an overwhelming margin, the current talks surround reducing the ratio from the current 18:1 to 2.5:1.  But there are some key sticking points, especially over language from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about the role of the Justice Department when it comes to applying the change retroactively. After Democrats rejected Grassley’s proposal, negotiators are now discussing removing retroactivity altogether, according to a Democratic aide.

Sigh. Notably, this January 2022 US Sentencing Commission impact assessment estimated that retroactive application of the EQUAL Act would save about 50,000 years of imprisonment for the more than 7500+ persons incarcerated for crack offenses, but “only” a little over 2,000 prison years for each year going forward.  Of course, any potential statutory reform that does not lower crack sentencing all the way down to be equal with powder cocaine sentencing will have a more modest impact, and eliminating retroactivity would diminish the impact even more.

Given that the House so overwhelming passed the EQUAL Act last year, I want to believe there is a chance for some kind of reforms in the next Congress even with the GOP in control of the House.  But that might be crazy talk, so maybe this lame duck period is the last best chance for crack sentencing reform.  But at this late date, I am certainly not optimistic.  

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:


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