By Sam P. K. Collins
As D.C. residents, government officials and others mull over the ideal means of quelling violence, community leader and reentry advocate Tony Lewis Jr. continues to highlight how, decades ago, the federal government’s war on drugs further inflicted damage on numerous Black communities, including those in the District.
In the latest juncture of his advocacy for incarcerated people and their families, Lewis has joined forces with Dream Corps JUSTICE to advance The EQUAL Act through Congress. If passed, this federal legislation would pave the way for eliminating sentencing disparities between powder cocaine and crack-cocaine offenses.
Despite similarities in their chemical composition, judges since the late 1980s have levied harsher penalties for the possession and sale of crack cocaine, a drug more often associated with the Black community. Lewis said that, as legions of parents and grandparents continue to sit in prison for non-violent drug offenses, future generations continue to suffer in a city that has undergone an urban renaissance.
“When people received these draconian sentences, it took guidance and a power structure out of the community,” Lewis said as he explained the greater economic forces that compelled people to use and sell drugs.
“What we see [with the violence in D.C.] are the offspring of the men and women who’ve been taken away. What was never addressed was that poverty pushed that generation into the drug trade. As long as Black people in this city continue to be poor, we’ll continue to see violence,” he said.
Entire Families and Communities Affected
Half of U.S. inmates are parents, according to data compiled by The Sentencing Project. The research-based advocacy center estimates that 2.7 million children are currently experiencing this reality, with nearly twice as many having already been through it.
As Lewis and others have often argued, a parent’s incarceration has numerous effects on a child. The National Institute of Justice connects parental incarceration to antisocial behaviors, suspension and expulsion from school and economic hardship.
Amid efforts to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, attention has pivoted to also providing opportunities to incarcerated parents and their children to connect and mitigate the long-term consequences of separation.
The EQUAL Act follows the First Step Act, a 2018 bipartisan effort to reduce the size of the federal prison population. One provision allows judges, in some cases, to impose lower sentences than the statutory minimum. Inmates with crack-cocaine-related offenses before 2010 also became eligible for sentence reduction. Legislation passed years earlier reduced sentencing disparities between crack-cocaine and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.
Since Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY8) introduced the EQUAL Act, also known as the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unfair Application of the Law Act, in March with 26 Republican cosponsors, it passed through the House with the support of 143 Republicans. It currently sits in the Senate, where it has been read twice and referred to the Judiciary Committee.
If passed, the EQUAL Act would apply to future cases and those pending at the time of its enactment. In regards to retroactively eliminating disparities for inmates who’ve been convicted of crack-cocaine-related offenses, this legislation allows eligible inmates to petition for sentence reduction. It also authorizes a sentencing court to impose a reduced sentence, with or without an inmate’s presence in the sentencing reduction hearing.
Over the last few months, Dream Corps JUSTICE Policy Director Kandia Milton and his colleagues have engaged Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and more than a dozen other Republican senators who’ve appeared open to the legislation.
With at least 10 Republican votes needed for the passage of the EQUAL Act on the Senate side, Milton said he has relied on the facts, more than anything, to convey the importance of this moment.
“When you look at the science, the data and what’s fair, Republicans and Democrats both agree that the need for change is clear,” Milton said. “Locking up folks for a long time has not reduced recidivism. [Republican and Democratic leadership] recognized the need for change. People trust us and verify what we’re saying is true.”
Playing the Game to Pass Legislation
In commemoration of the First Step Act’s passage, DREAM Corps JUSTICE hosted “The Next Steps to Justice” on Dec. 8. The event featured criminal justice movement leaders and returning citizens who benefited from the First Step Act. Congressman David Trone (D-MD6) counted among those who spoke about the importance of the EQUAL Act.
As he reflected on his encounters with the criminal justice system, Trone acknowledged his privileges as a white man that allowed him to avoid years behind bars. He later outlined a strategy to engage his conservative colleagues in the Senate, some of whom are more than likely hesitant about supporting the EQUAL Act.
“We get what’s possible [and] sometimes that means we can’t get what’s right. If I was the only guy voting in Congress, I would get what’s right but we got the Senate and we have to make sure we’re working [in a] bipartisan [way],” Trone said. “We got the hard right wing. We got to work as a team [and] figure out how to get some Republicans on board to realize this is the right thing.”
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