Published on: Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act, H.R. 1693 today that would finally erase the sentencing disparity between federal crack and powder cocaine offenses, a policy that has led to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans (article available here).

The legislation would reduce the penalties for federal crack cocaine offenses to the same level as those for powder cocaine offenses, and it would make those changes retroactive, meaning federal crack offenders currently serving prison sentences will be eligible to have their sentences reduced.

Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). The Justice Department also previously endorsed the bill.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that black people made up nearly 77 percent of all federal crack cocaine convictions in fiscal year 2020. 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.

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.