Congress must pass the EQUAL Act and end the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity
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My name is Ruby Annette Carter-Welch, but I am also known to the State of Arkansas as #706416. I served 7 years, 5 months and 6 days of a 30 year sentence for possession of less than 12 grams of crack cocaine.

I am the first to say that I am responsible for my choices. In the years since I was released, I have rebuilt my life. Kept my parole appointments. Found myself homeless three times, unable to find work and housing because of my criminal record. Paid legal fines and fees to the state instead of buying groceries. I was, and am, determined to make a fresh start and do it the right way. 

I make no excuses. But I do question the broken system that unfairly sentenced me, and so many like me.

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In 1986, an ambitious young Delaware senator helped push through a crime bill with stricter penalties for drug possession. That bill treated crack cocaine as far worse than powder cocaine, mostly because of hype, hysteria, and the assumption that crack was a “Black,” “urban” drug, while powder cocaine was for the affluent white upper class. Thanks to that bill, mandatory minimum sentences for crack were up to 100 times worse than those for powder. Mandatory minimums were racist and unfair, leaving millions of people of color like me locked up behind bars. 

Today, even that Delaware senator — now we call him President BidenJoe BidenSouth Africa health minister calls travel bans over new COVID variant 'unjustified' Biden attends tree lighting ceremony after day out in Nantucket Senior US diplomat visiting Southeast Asia to 'reaffirm' relations MORE — admits it was a mistake. Republicans agree with him too, even though our two parties can barely agree on anything these days. 

Over the past decade, we’ve chipped away at the unjust crack/powder disparity and started bringing people home. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity to 18:1. The FIRST STEP Act retroactively extended the Fair Sentencing Act to more than 10,000+ people.

It’s still not enough. That’s why the Senate must pass the bipartisan EQUAL Act and finally level the playing field by creating 1:1 penalties for crack and powder cocaine.

Here’s how I think about it: Whether it’s wine, beer, brandy, or your drink of choice, we measure blood alcohol levels exactly the same. If you go out drinking and blow into a breathalyzer, you’re either above the legal limit or you’re not. Plain and simple.

Crack is just powdered cocaine with baking soda and heat applied. It is the same drug, but mixed—like a cocktail mixed with coke. Where is the justice in taking one person’s life away and throwing them behind bars for decades, while letting another serve a far shorter sentence, over baking soda? There is none.

Thankfully many of our policymakers seem to be wising up to this fact. The House recently passed the EQUAL Act with huge bipartisan support, and President Biden is on board to sign it into law. This week, I will be visiting members of the Senate to ask them to finish the job.

I was sentenced under state law, which means even milestone legislation like the EQUAL Act would not immediately impact my case. I will remain unfree. I will still have to file papers to leave the state. I will have to check in with my parole officer. I will continue to have to treat everyone I know with suspicion – because something as small as a casual acquaintance getting in my car with a bit of marijuana in their pocket could land me back in jail, even if it was never mine. 

I am not pushing for this bill in order to save myself. I am doing it because mandatory minimums are unjust, and we all know it. 

I am not the same person I was yesterday, so I know I am not the same woman I was 24 years ago. President Biden has changed. Republicans in Congress have changed. So have people who made mistakes decades ago and are still sitting in prison because of laws most now admit were a mistake.

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So, listen to some of the human beings serving time right now. Ask them how they got in this mess. Let them explain how God or their higher power delivered them out of addiction and out of bad choices. Let your heart be opened to a horrible injustice that we can actually solve, in a world full of problems that are not so easy. 

Then, pass the EQUAL Act.

Ruby Welch is a motivational speaker and advocate for criminal and restorative justice. She currently works as an organizer for Dream Corps JUSTICE.