With violent crime on the rise in Chicago and cities across America, it is critical that lawmakers consider how every piece of legislation crossing their desk will affect public safety. That’s why I was grateful when Dick Durbin, the senior U.S. senator from Illinois and chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, invited me to testify at a hearing on violent crime.
As a former prosecutor and now as sheriff of Cook County, encompassing one of our country’s largest metropolitan areas, I am on the front lines of battling violent crime with police officers, prosecutors and corrections officials. We have a unique perspective on the policies that will build trust with the communities we serve and make us all safer.
At the hearing, my fellow law enforcement officers and I talked about how seriously we need to confront the recent escalation of carjackings and shootings and how data-driven approaches, such as community violence intervention, have proved to help in addition to prosecutions. We all agreed that holding violent criminals accountable is key and that we need to use every tool in the toolbox to combat violence.
Justin Herdman, a former U.S. attorney from Ohio during the Trump administration, shared how federal prosecution of juveniles is not feasible and urged effective alternatives to incarceration for juveniles. Dallas Chief of Police Edgardo Garcia shared how expanded data collection is crucial to identifying solutions. And I was able to share both our carjacking strategy and the success of interventions inside Cook County Jail that work in collaboration with community-based rehabilitation and reentry organizations.
With Durbin, we were preaching to the choir. He is considered one of the godfathers of bipartisan criminal justice reforms that make our communities safer. Most recently, he joined with U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to sponsor the First Step Act, groundbreaking bipartisan prison and sentencing reform legislation signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018. Importantly, the First Step Act was supported by the Fraternal Order of Police, Major Cities Chiefs Association, Major County Sheriffs of America and numerous other well-respected law enforcement entities.
Now Durbin seeks to make history again with the EQUAL Act, a bill he co-sponsored with Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that would eliminate the 18-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, two substances that are scientifically the same, equally dangerous and yet treated very differently under federal sentencing laws. No one can argue the disproportionate impact this decadeslong sentencing disparity has had on the Black community. Roughly 80% to 90% of the people in federal prison for crack offenses are Black, serving far longer prison sentences than people convicted of powder cocaine offenses — and for no justifiable reason.
This lopsided result has helped damage trust between law enforcement and communities throughout the country, making it all the more difficult for police to investigate and solve violent crimes in urban areas. As one former Trump-appointed U.S. attorney noted at the Senate hearing for the EQUAL Act, it is almost impossible for law enforcement to cultivate sources within the Black community willing to share information that could solve shootings and other serious crimes because they don’t believe the system is set up to serve them; rather, they believe it is stacked against them.
This is one of the reasons I support the EQUAL Act and why the National District Attorneys Association, Major Cities Chiefs Association, Office of National Drug Control Policy, well-respected former U.S. attorneys and U.S. Department of Justice have also endorsed the legislation.
This broad law enforcement support — along with broad bipartisan backing — led to a sweeping 361-66 bipartisan vote in favor of the EQUAL Act in the U.S. House. After this vote, Durbin took to the floor of the Senate with a powerful speech calling for a vote on the bill:
“I’ve tried to undo some of the damage done (by) the war on drugs,” he said. “Once again, we’ve been able to come together on a bipartisan basis, only this time we agree we need to finish the job and end this disparity. … By passing the EQUAL Act, this Senate can prove we can learn from our mistakes.”
I urge the Senate to listen to law enforcement leaders calling for an end to this unjustifiable sentencing disparity, heed Durbin’s call to “finish the job” and send the bipartisan EQUAL Act to the president’s desk as soon as possible.
Tom Dart is Cook County sheriff and a former Illinois prosecutor and state legislator.
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