January 28, 2023

The Senate failed to advance a bipartisan bill that would have reduced one of the most persistent racial disparities in criminal justice: the punishment for crack cocaine.



JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The end of 2022 saw a renewed push to end a harmful vestige in the war on drugs. Crack cocaine offenses have been punished much more harshly than crimes that involve powder forms of cocaine – a disparity that’s hit thousands of Black men the hardest. And recent efforts to change that still have some limitations. NPR’s Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Orrin Jackson knows firsthand what the work of Congress means to people in prison.

ORRIN JACKSON: And I was away from my daughter for 31 years and two months. When I left, she was 6 months old.

JOHNSON: Jackson once expected to die behind bars, but he’s now free and working in Charlotte, N.C. That’s because lawmakers passed a bill in 2018 that gave him the chance to ask a judge for his release for drug crimes. Jackson remembers the reunion with his daughter.

JACKSON: And so it was just an amazing experience to be able to hug her and hold her as a free man.

JOHNSON: Jackson’s one of many people who have traveled to Washington over the past two years, meeting with lawmakers to try to get them to pass the Equal Act. That bill would have equalized the punishment for certain cocaine crimes, making it the same for both crack and powder forms of the drug. The bill overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House, but it died in the Senate last month. Jackson says that news came like a slap in the face.

JACKSON: A slap in the face to where you’re not important. You’re not important as an agenda. You’re not important as the issue.

JANOS MARTON: There’s a real human cost to that. In the case of the Equal Act, there are 8,000 families that are not going to be reunited.

JOHNSON: That’s Janos Marton. He’s national director of the dream.org justice program, which lobbied for the bill.

MARTON: This was supposed to be the easy, commonsense bill that everybody could get behind.

JOHNSON: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat, made that case last month as he pressed the Senate to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORY BOOKER: Republicans and Democrats, join together all across the political spectrum to say that this was wrong, that we should make these pharmacologically identical substances have the same punishment.

JOHNSON: Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican, responded that now is the wrong time to make drug laws more lenient.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM COTTON: This so-called Equal Act is likewise going to go easier on crack cocaine traffickers, including members of gangs and cartels. This will only exacerbate our problems.

JOHNSON: Kevin Ring says both parties bear some blame for the bill’s demise. Republican opponents in the Senate refused to fast-track the legislation, Ring says. But Democrats controlled the House, the Senate and the White House at the time.

KEVIN RING: Ultimately, Republican opposition is what stopped it from passing by unanimous consent. But it was a failure of leadership to not give us a vote, to give us a chance to win.

JOHNSON: Ring leads FAMM, a nonprofit group that advocates for people in prison and their families.

RING: These families were so close to getting relief. I mean, they were calculating their husbands’ release dates thinking this was going to pass, and now it was yanked out from under them.

JOHNSON: The Senate failed to act, but last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland did. He instructed prosecutors to charge crack and powder cocaine crimes the same way moving forward starting this month. Advocates welcome that move, but it has some limits. The policy doesn’t apply to people already in prison, and it could be reversed if a new attorney general decides to change course. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, tells NPR in a statement that he strongly believes in the Equal Act and won’t give up on getting the bill done. Orrin Jackson says he’ll be watching.

JACKSON: And when you see something that’s not fair, just and equitable, you have a responsibility and a duty when you’re in a position to change that.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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