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A bill that would have impacted racial disparity in cocaine crimes died in the Senate

Orrin Jackson, center, is one of the nonprofit Dream.org's network of formerly incarcerated people who lobbied Congress to pass the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law<strong> </strong>(EQUAL) Act. Shown here are lawmakers and bill advocates from Dream.org and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).
Dream.org
Orrin Jackson, center, is one of the nonprofit Dream.org's network of formerly incarcerated people who lobbied Congress to pass the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act. Shown here are lawmakers and bill advocates from Dream.org and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

Updated January 10, 2023 at 3:15 PM ET

When the Senate failed to vote on a bill that would have erased decades-old racial disparities for drug crimes, Orrin Jackson said it felt like "a slap in the face."

Jackson, 53, knows firsthand what the work of Congress means to people in prison. Once destined to die behind bars, Jackson won release after lawmakers moved in 2018 to give him and many others a way to approach a judge and seek a reduced sentence.

"I was away from my daughter for 31 years and two months," Jackson said. "When I left, she was six months old. ... And so it was just an amazing experience to be able to hug her and hold her as a free man."

Jackson joined other formerly incarcerated people and their families on trips to lobby Congress to pass the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (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. A vestige of the war on drugs from 1986, crack cocaine offenses are punished much more harshly than crimes involving the powder form of the drug.

That's taken a disproportionate toll on Black men, who serve longer sentences than their white counterparts for virtually the same offenses.

The EQUAL Act fizzled on the Senate floor last month

The bill overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House of Representatives with a vote of 361 to 66 in 2021. But it died on the Senate floor only days before the Christmas holiday, disappointing wives who had started to calculate their husbands' release date, thinking the legislation would advance.

"There's a real human cost to that," said Janos Martin, national director of the Dream.org justice program, which pushed for the bill. "In the case of the EQUAL Act, there are 8,000 families that are not going to be reunited."

Martin said the EQUAL Act "was supposed to be the easy, common sense bill that everybody could get behind."

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

"Republicans and Democrats joined together all across the political spectrum, to say that this is wrong, that we should make these pharmacologically identical substances have the same punishment," Booker said.

But Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican, responded that now, in the middle of an overdose crisis, is the wrong time to make drug laws more lenient.

"This so-called Equal Act is likewise going to go easier on crack cocaine traffickers including gangs and cartels which is only going to exacerbate our problems," Cotton said.

Groups advocating for an overhaul of drug laws said both parties bear some blame for the bill's demise

Republican opponents in the Senate refused to fast track the legislation, but Democrats controlled the House, the Senate and the White House at the time.

"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," said Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit group that represents people in prison and their families.

Though the Senate failed to act, Attorney General Merrick Garland did. He instructed prosecutors to make sentencing recommendations for crack and powder cocaine crimes the same way moving forward, starting later this month.

Advocates welcomed 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, told NPR in a written statement: "I strongly believe in the EQUAL Act and I'm not giving up on getting this bipartisan bill done. We are going to keep working with Republicans in the Senate to get this bill passed this Congress."

Legal experts who have closely followed the issue expressed some pessimism about the prospects for reviving the bill during a fractious political moment.

Orrin Jackson, who's now living and working in Charlotte, N.C., said people in prison are counting on him to share his story. Jackson said lawmakers have a responsibility, too.

"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," Jackson said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.