We Can Eliminate Unjust Sentencing Disparities and Build Anew
Min. Christian S. Watkins
May 16, 2022
NETWORK affirms that every person is entitled to dignity and equal justice under the law. Since the inception of President Nixon’s 1971 War on Drugs, federal policies have perpetuated the plagues of over-criminalization, mass incarceration, and increased police militarization. Extreme sentencing measures such as mandatory minimums and “three strikes” laws have led to the U.S. having the highest percentage of incarcerated people in the world.
More pointedly, for decades, the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses has contributed to our country’s shameful legacy of systemic racism and mass incarceration, despite being two forms of the same drug. If we hope to Build Anew, we must dismantle systemic racism, cultivate inclusive community, root our economy in solidarity, and ultimately transform our politics.
Second Chance Month Centers Redemption and Rehabilitation
On the heels of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Biden administration commemorated the month of April as Second Chance Month. President Biden granted pardons to three people and commuted the sentences of 75 people, all of whom have made efforts to rehabilitate themselves, including through educational and vocational training or drug treatment in prison. Additionally, the Administration has taken steps to offer “meaningful socioeconomic opportunities for redemption and rehabilitation to reduce recidivism and empower formerly incarcerated persons to become productive members of society, and to reduce crime, making our communities safer.”
President Biden sent his Administration’s inaugural National Drug Control Strategy to Congress at a time when drug overdoses have taken a heartbreaking toll, claiming 106,854 lives in the most recent 12-month period.* The Strategy delivers on the call to action in President Biden’s Unity Agenda through a whole-of-government approach to beat the overdose epidemic. The strategy includes an “Incarceration to Employment” policy that fosters expanding and improving second chance opportunities for formerly incarcerated persons, advances successful reentry outcomes that make our communities safer, disrupts cycles of economic hardship, and strengthens our economy.
What Congress Can Do?
With these bold steps taken by the Biden Administration, now is prime time for Congress to continue the work of taking meaningful steps towards making justice happen for thousands of currently and formerly incarcerated persons in our nation. We can eliminate unjust sentencing disparity by passing robust legislation that lends to redemption, rehabilitation, and, reconciliation and restoration of incarcerated persons back into community as productive members of society. Some of the bipartisan bills that have passed, or are being considered by, the House of Representatives, and are currently being considered by the Senate are:
- The EQUAL Act (S.79) eliminates the unjust sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and automatically authorizes resentencing of those previously convicted. In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created a disparity between federal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. The law required the same harsh penalties for the possession of one amount of crack cocaine and 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine, an inequitable handling of essentially the same drug. Decades later, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced that disparity from 100:1 to 18:1, and that reform was made retroactive in the First Step Act signed in 2018. Despite this reform, people continue to face longer sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine than for offenses involving the same amount of powder cocaine. This bill currently has a bipartisan list of 21 cosponsors and needs clean passage, acceptance of amendments would cause bill to go back to House for reconsideration.
- The First Step Implementation Act (S.1014) is intends to cut adults’ and juveniles’ unnecessarily long federal sentences by (1) allowing courts to apply the 2018 First Step Act’s significant sentencing reform provisions to reduce sentences for those who committed their offenses prior to its enactment, (2) allowing courts to sentence below a mandatory minimum, (3) provide for sealing or expunging records of nonviolent juvenile offenses in some cases, and (4) requires the Attorney General to establish procedures to ensure only accurate criminal records are shared for employment-related purposes. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) is the newest cosponsor of the bill as of April 25th, bringing the bipartisan list of supporters to ten.
- The Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act (S.601) ends the perverse practice of federal courts considering acquitted or dismissed charges as aggravating factors when imposing sentences for convictions. Sen. Moran Jerry (R-KA) is the newest cosponsor of the bill as of April 25, bringing the bipartisan list of supporters to ten.
- The COVID-19 Safer Detention Act (S.312) expands eligibility of at-home supervision to additional vulnerable, low-risk elderly prisoners, and expedites releases from federal prison during the continued COVID-19 pandemic by explicitly naming COVID-19 vulnerability as a basis for compassionate release. This bill currently has a bipartisan list of 8 cosponsors.
As the Biden-Harris administration noted in their Second Chance Month fact sheet, “Advancing successful reentry outcomes makes our communities safer, disrupts cycles of economic hardship, and strengthens our economy.” Passing these laws would make meaningful movement towards justice for thousands of currently and formerly incarcerated persons in our nation.