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Chairman Nadler Statement for the Markup of H.R. 1693, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act

Washington, D.C. - Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening statement, as prepared, during the markup of H.R. 1693, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act:

"H.R. 1693, the 'Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act' or the 'EQUAL Act,' would eliminate the unjust sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. This long overdue bipartisan legislation would also allow defendants who were previously convicted or sentenced for a federal offense involving crack cocaine to petition for a sentence reduction.

"In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses and introduced the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.

"This meant that a person who distributed five grams of crack cocaine received the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence as a person who distributed 500 grams of powder cocaine. A person who distributed 50 grams of crack cocaine received the same 10-year mandatory minimum sentence as a person who distributed 5,000 grams of powder cocaine.

"It soon became evident that this sentencing disparity had also created a significant racial disparity.  Four years after Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the average federal sentence for Black defendants was 49 percent higher than the average for white defendants. In the ensuing decades, the Sentencing Commission and many members of the law enforcement community strongly and repeatedly criticized the 100-to-1 ratio and urged Congress to address the disparity.

"As early as 1995, the Sentencing Commission began urging Congress to rectify this unfairness.  Besides the troubling racial disparities in sentencing, the Commission also expressed concern over the significant difference in punishment between street level dealers of crack cocaine and the powder cocaine suppliers who sold the cocaine in the first instance. Unfortunately, Congress rejected the Commission’s proposed amendment to the Sentencing Guidelines to equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine.

"From 1997 to 2007, the Commission continued to warn Congress about the unjustified ratio, noting that 'there is no legislative history that explains Congress’s rationale for selecting the 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio for powder cocaine and crack offenses.' It provided evidence for its findings that the penalties exaggerated the relative harmfulness of crack cocaine, swept too broadly, most often applied to lower-level offenders, and mostly impacted minorities.

"Congress, however, took no action, prompting the Commission to pass an amendment to the Sentencing Guidelines in 2007 as a partial and modest remedy to the 'urgent and compelling' problems associated with the ratio. In doing so, the Commission “unanimously and strongly urged” Congress to take actions on its recommendations and to provide a comprehensive solution.

"In 2010, Congress finally acted by passing the Fair Sentencing Act, which did not eliminate the disparity, but which significantly reduced the ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. But the Fair Sentencing applied only to pending and future cases, leaving thousands of inmates without a path to petition for relief. The First Step Act of 2018 made the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, providing a pathway to relief for some, but not all, individuals affected by the sentencing disparity. 

"It is now past time to finish the job. The crack cocaine and powder cocaine disparity has greatly contributed to the rise of mass incarceration, devastated communities of color, and severely undermined public confidence in our criminal justice system. 

"The EQUAL Act would finally equalize the treatment of powder cocaine and crack cocaine—two forms of the same drug—by eliminating the sentencing disparity. It would also provide a path to retroactive relief from a disparity that is not rooted in science, does not promote public safety, and fosters racial disparities.

"This bipartisan legislation represents an important step in our efforts to reform the criminal justice system.  I commend Representative Jeffries for introducing this important legislation and for assembling a broad and bipartisan coalition of stakeholders in support of the bill, including the Department of Justice and advocacy groups that span the ideological spectrum.  I urge all my colleagues to support this bill."
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