Sen. Roy Blunt (MO) became the 11th Republican to sign onto the EQUAL Act (S.79/H.R.1693), joining a spectrum of Republicans from Sen. Lindsay Graham (SC) to Sen. Susan Collins (ME) adding their names to the bill.

Sen. Roy Blunt On Equal Act
Sen. Roy Blunt

The importance of Blunt’s co-sponsorship is that with full Democrat support for the proposal and at least 11 Republican votes, EQUAL’s passage is assured if it is put up to a vote. The proposal was approved by the House of Representatives last October.

If it becomes law, the EQUAL Act will make statutory punishment for crack cocaine no different than for powder cocaine. Currently, crack is penalized at an 18:1 ratio, meaning that although a half kilo of coke powder carries a five-year obligatory minimum, just 28 grams of crack is needed to obtain a defendant the same term. The EQUAL Act is fully retroactive, meaning that hundreds of current sentences using crack could be reduced.

Up to the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer

The question always is when – or if – the Senate will put the bill up for a vote. That choice lies with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) (D-NY). Axios said that Schumer – who also is an EQUAL Act co-sponsor – met last Tuesday with advocates and formerly jailed leaders, where he hailed the measure as “a priority.” He has offered no indication of a timeframe on EQUAL, but he told Axios last week he does aim to bring the measure to the floor.

The Hill noted last Wednesday that EQUAL’s having secured 60 sponsors is a “threshold that is expected to trigger a hearing in the coming weeks.” Politico claims the proposal “may already have the votes to get to President Joe Biden’s desk.”

Congressional Black Caucus’s Letter Regarding Equal Act

The Congressional Black Caucus issued Schumer a letter last Monday urging fast passage of EQUAL. The letter said in part

We write in support of bringing the EQUAL Act (H.R. 1693/S. 79) to the Senate Floor for consideration as soon as possible. It would eliminate the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity and ensure that those who were convicted or sentenced for a federal offense involving cocaine can receive a re-sentencing under the new law.

According to a recent analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, approximately 827 individuals would benefit from the prospective section of the bill each year, and 7,787 offenders in BOP custody would be eligible to seek a modification of their sentence based on the retroactive section. In total, the EQUAL Act will reduce excessive prison time by 67,800 years, and 91% of the individuals who will get this critical relief are Black.

Politico optimistically reported last week that “other bipartisan federal legislation that could reach President Biden’s desk this year include bills that abolish federal life without parole sentences for juveniles, prevent the use of acquitted conduct in sentencing, extend Medicaid to otherwise eligible individuals within 30 days of their release from incarceration, and invest in treatment for people with mental illness in the justice system.”

Axios, Congress closes in on cocaine sentencing disparity (April 6, 2022)

The Hill, Confirmation combat can’t crush bipartisan criminal justice reform (April 6, 2022)

Politico, A major group of House Democrats is asking the Senate to end a policy widely considered racist: sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine (April 5, 2022)

Hakeem Jeffries, Letter to Schumer and Durbin (Apr 5)