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In the Continuing Fight for Racial Justice, Start by Passing the EQUAL Act

By John Norton

25 months ago, George Floyd’s murder ignited nationwide protests. The Black community demanded that the federal government find ways to address systemic racism. The House responded by passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, but the filibuster threat killed it in the Senate.

The only legislation to pass with a racial component to it was uncontroversial: declaring Juneteenth a national holiday. The celebration refers to the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when federal troops, led by Union General Gordan Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to ensure all the remaining enslaved people were free. This occurred 71 days after the Civil War ended and 900 days after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. A win is a win, but I suspect Juneteenth didn’t rank as a top priority for the protestors during the summer of 2020.

This past Monday, June 20, marked the second year in a row that Juneteenth was observed as a federal holiday. The U.S. Senate has a great way to mark Juneteenth beyond the holiday: passing the EQUAL Act.

Crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug. Under the EQUAL Act, people would receive the same penalty for the same amount of crack and powder cocaine, and it would be applied retroactively. Thousands of incarcerated individuals would be reunited with their families.

The need for the current fix can be blamed on developments under President Ronald Reagan when the war on drugs was raging. Cocaine saw its price drop 80 percent in the 1980s when the crystalized version of it (crack) became widely available. The federal government reacted by passing The Anti-Drug Act of 1986, which established the same mandatory minimum sentencing penalty for a defendant caught with 100 grams of powder cocaine as for 1 gram of crack cocaine.

Some relief was granted 24 years later with the enactment of The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which dropped the ratio to 18 to 1. The EQUAL Act eliminates the sentencing disparity.

If you examine the data, it’s clear that the war on drugs is racially-biased, especially when it comes to cocaine. The 2020 Census counts Blacks as 13.4% and Whites as 60.1% of the population. Yet, the Drug Policy Alliance claims Blacks comprise 30% of those arrested for drug law violations and almost 40% of those incarcerated in state or federal prison for violations.

FAMM’s one-pager further details the devastating impact of our sentencing laws on the Black community. In 2019, 81 percent of crack convictions were for Black people, despite White and Hispanic people historically accounting for more than 66 percent of crack users.

Juneteenth asks us as a nation to remember historic racism and take action to do everything we can to fight it. The EQUAL Act addresses a racist policy in our criminal justice system. The bill passed the House of Representatives by a 361 to 61 margin and has filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. So why won’t the Senate act?

With the midterm elections fast approaching, Republicans and Democrats are focused on making partisan appeals to voters instead of working together to pass legislation. The EQUAL Act represents a realistic opportunity to advance the cause of racial justice. It’s the rare bill that has a “yes” votes from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Unfortunately, votes on amendments unrelated to the bill, which can then be weaponized by political opponents, will likely accompany an EQUAL Act vote. As a result, the political calculation has been made to shelve the bill in the Senate.

For many Black Americans, Juneteenth marks the country’s second Independence Day, because the remaining locations where slavery was practiced were shut down. It’s worthy of celebrating. The EQUAL Act would free many Black Americans from long sentences that don’t make communities safer and haven’t diminished our country’s insatiable appetite for drugs. The EQUAL Act is a sound policy deserving of a vote in the Senate and a signing ceremony at the White House. That would also be cause for celebration and a real sign of racial progress.

John Norton is FAMM’s Communications Manager.

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FAMM Foundation

FAMM Foundation

FAMM is a national nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes fair and effective criminal justice policies.