U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., left, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in a Sept. 9, 2020, file photo. Credit: Michael Reynolds / Pool via AP

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This might be the year for a federal sentencing reform bill that narrowly missed passage in 2022, with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins rejoining one of the most diverse groups of supporters that you will see in a bitterly divided Washington.

The EQUAL Act would eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Backers note that 90 percent of people incarcerated for crack offenses are Black. Powder cocaine is effectively the same drug, so the measure has become a point of agreement between limited-government and civil rights groups.

The faces: Those aligned on the bill include the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council’s political arm and the American Civil Liberties Union. The sponsors run from U.S. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on the Republican side to Democratic U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Collins, a Maine Republican, signed onto the bill last week, and she also co-sponsored it last year. It overwhelmingly passed the House last year with help from Maine’s two Democratic members, Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Jared Golden of the 2nd District.

President Joe Biden vowed to sign it if it got to his desk. But it stalled in the Senate and was not included in a year-end spending proposal, which led to   criticism of leading senators by one of the groups that backed it.

“This is the triumph of politics over people, and it’s sickening,” Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said then. “We will keep fighting until this disparity is eliminated and everyone who is behind bars because of it is freed.”

Here’s the outlook: Backers are just now gearing up for another run through the chambers. By the end of last year, there were 35 co-sponsors in the Senate, and Collins is only one of nine now on that side. But it got to 11 Republican backers last time, indicating that it could get through the upper chamber if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, brought it to a vote.

Not much has changed on the Senate landscape since then. The bill could face a harder path to a vote on the House side, where Republicans took the chamber back from Democrats in 2022. Nearly a third of the caucus voted against the measure last time, although the new House speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California, voted for it. That will give proponents some hope.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...