December 20, 2022
Washington, D.C. -- On Monday night, Senate leadership announced a deal for a 2023 budget omnibus that failed to include a bipartisan compromise, negotiated by the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley (R-IA), that would have reduced the racist impact of the War on Drugs by reducing the arbitrary disparity between crack and powder cocaine. For years, despite the drugs being chemically identical, it took 100 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence as 1 gram of crack cocaine. This has led to tens of thousands of people of color being given far longer prison sentences than white counterparts arrested for the same drug. This disparity was changed to 18:1 in 2010 thanks to the Fair Sentencing Act, and, with leadership from Dream.Org, it was made retroactive by the First Step Act under President Trump, helping thousands come home sooner. During the negotiations on the omnibus bill, a bipartisan compromise was announced that would further reduce that disparity to 2.5:1, but it was ultimately pulled in order to placate the most extreme anti-reform voices, like Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR). Because of the Senate’s failure to act, almost 8,000 people, mostly Black men, will continue to serve long prison sentences spawned from racist policy.
"It is shameful and inexplicable that Tom Cotton, the most extreme member of the Senate minority, which was just made smaller in the last election, has been given veto power over a policy supported by his own party’s leader on the Judiciary Committee and hundreds of Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives,” said Janos Marton, the Justice National Director for Dream.Org, the nonprofit whose formerly incarcerated leaders were instrumental in securing bipartisan support for reform. “The war on drugs is cruel and ineffective, leaving communities and families worse off and Americans paying the bill for a dysfunctional prison system. Incredibly, in 2022 we still have thousands of people serving multi-decade sentences for crack. Republicans and Democrats agreed to reduce this harm under both Presidents Obama and Trump, and, most recently, in 2021 when 361 House Democrats and Republicans united to pass the EQUAL Act, a bill that would end the sentencing disparity entirely. We’re endlessly grateful to the lead sponsors, Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), who were willing to cross the aisle to make this agreement happen; the bill’s Senate champion, Cory Booker (D-NJ); and the eleven Republican Senate co-sponsors. And we had been equally encouraged by support from Senate Leadership, including Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), for reaching a compromise that, while not doing away with the disparity entirely, at least recognized the injustice in the existing law. However, that simple compromise was too much for Tom Cotton, who has apparently been given the keys to controlling criminal justice policy in the U.S. Senate. There is simply no explanation for why a compromise so widely supported on both sides of the aisle was removed to placate the voice least interested in finding common solutions. Despite this setback, it is clear that the vast majority of Congress knows it is time to end performative sentencing that disproportionately punishes people of color. We will redouble our work to - once again - pass the EQUAL Act in the next Congress and pressure the Senate to end unjustifiable discrimination in our laws. Our message to people still serving these unfairly long prison sentences is, ‘You are not forgotten, we will continue to fight for you.’”