Remember Minnesota’s Second District Congressman Jason Lewis complaining over the size and associated costs of the federal criminal code and prison system ? “Criminal justice reform is one of my absolute priorities”, said Congressman Lewis in a November 7, 2017 press release. Adding, “There are better ways to spend Americans’ tax dollars and keep our communities safe through real evidence-based initiatives that actually reduce crime by reserving costly prison space for hardened criminals.
Remember when Republican-endorsed U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis highlighted his criminal justice reform record as a member of Congress promoting legislation that he advocated that addressed racial disparities. “Criminal justice reform is about compassion. Democrats like Tina Smith talk a good game about being the party of compassion, but they haven’t done anything. And being generous with other people’s money hardly counts,” Lewis said.
Jason Lewis lost his 2020 campaign … but Michelle Fischbach won a House seat to represent Minnesota’s Seventh District.
Today, Congresswoman Fischbach cast a vote on a bill that even some of the most highly recognizable Republicans voted in favor. Yep, H R 1693 Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act (aka EQUAL Act) received 143 YES from Republicans … including Jim Jordan, Madison Cawthorn, Dan Crenshaw, Warren Davidson, Scott Fitzgerald, Bob Gibbs, Louie Gohmert, Glenn Grothman, Bob Latta, Kevin McCarthy, Ralph Norman, Tom Tiffany … and even Minnesota’s Sixth District Congressman Tom Emmer. Representative Gohmert, a former Texas state judge, said “I never saw a need for a cocaine sentencing disparity in Texas, and I see no need for a cocaine sentencing disparity federally,” yet MN01 Jim Hagedorn, MN07 Michelle Fischbach, IN03 Jim Banks, IN04 Jim Baird, FL16 Vern Buchanan, FL03 Kat Cammack, IL18 Darrin LaHood, FL18 Brian Mast, NY01 Lee Zeldin and others voted NO.
So with so many Republicans supporting it, the focus must be on those that did not … especially Minnesota’s Congresswoman Fischbach (who was one of only 5 Republicans to oppose it in the Judiciary Committee) and Congressman Jim Hagedorn.
The EQUAL Act eliminates the disparity in authorized sentences for offenses involving crack versus powder cocaine. In 1986, Congress established stiffer penalties, including mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, based on prevailing thought that crack is more dangerous. Congress insisted that a person possessing five grams of crack would trigger the same mandatory minimum sentence as someone caught with 500g of powder cocaine.
According to a Fiscal Year 2020 report from the US Sentencing Commission, 77.1% of crack cocaine trafficking offenders were Black, whereas most powder cocaine trafficking offenders were either White or Hispanic. The sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine, at one point as high as 100 to 1, helped fuel the mass incarceration problem.
Crack cocaine is also the only drug that carries a mandatory prison sentence for first offense possession. So someone who is convicted of crack cocaine might get 35 years while the average sentence for powder cocaine trafficking offenders was 72 months.
Addressing this is something that then-Congressman Jason Lewis may have thought would have happened when President Trump signed the First Step Act in 2018 … but the Supreme Court had problems with that law in a June 2021 ruling … so this Congress is addressing that with the EQUAL Act.
Representatives Fischbach and Hagedorn have left their constituents to wonder with so many Republicans supporting the EQUAL Act, recognizing the cost of incarceration and the desire for compassion, if their opposition is based on anything other than racism.