California Fair Sentencing Act to Eliminate the Disparities Between Crack and Powder Cocaine Sentencing Passes its First Committee Today

Press Release April 28, 2014
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SACRAMENTO, CA — The California Fair Sentencing Act (SB 1010) authored by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), passed its first hurdle in the Senate Committee on Public Safety by a 4-2 vote today. Senator Mitchell’s bill will correct the groundless disparity in sentencing, probation and asset forfeiture guidelines for possession of crack cocaine for sale versus the same crime involving powder cocaine that has resulted in a pattern of racial discrimination in sentencing and incarceration in California. SB 1010 now moves on to the Appropriations Committee.

Garnering over 100 letters of support, the California Fair Sentencing Act boasts support from national civil rights groups like the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Advancement Project, human rights advocates like Human Rights Watch and The Children’s Defense Fund, over a dozen Latino and immigrant rights groups such as MALDEF and CHIRLA, faith based collaboratives like Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches and PICO California, leading drug treatment providers like Tarzana Treatment Centers and California Society of Addiction Medicine, constitutional attorneys including Dean of UC Irvine School of Law Erwin Chemerinsky and Warren Institute UC Berkeley School of Law Senior Fellow Barry Krisberg, and many other organizations and individuals who believe that the time has come for equal justice under the law (full list attached).

“Same crime, same punishment is a basic principle of law in our democratic society,” said Senator Mitchell, Chair of the Black Caucus and member of the Senate Public Safety Committee. “Yet more Black and Brown people serve longer sentences for trying to sell cocaine because the law unfairly punishes cheap drug traffic more severely than the white-collar version. Well, fair needs to be fair.”

Crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug. Scientific reports, including a major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, demonstrate that they have nearly identical effects on the human body.  Crack cocaine is a product derived when cocaine powder is processed with an alkali, typically common baking soda.  Gram for gram, there is less active drug in crack cocaine than in powder cocaine.

“Our current law is discriminatory,” said Lynne Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance. “As one of only 12 states left in the country that maintains this unjust disparity in cocaine sentencing, I am happy to see this bill move forward.”

According to intake data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, people of color account for over 98% of persons sent to California prisons for possession of crack cocaine for sale.  From 2005 to 2010, Blacks accounted for 77.4% of state prison commitments for crack possession for sale, Latinos accounted for 18.1%. Whites accounted for less than 2 percent of all those sent to California prisons in that five year period. Blacks make up 6.6% of the population in California; Latinos 38.2%, and whites 39.4%.

The Senate Public Safety Committee staff analysis noted that African Americans are imprisoned for possession of cocaine base for sale at a rate 43.25 times that for whites. Moreover, it noted that despite the fact that white adolescents use drugs at much higher rates than minority adolescents, the US Department of Justice found that juvenile drug arrests disproportionately involve minorities.

In a show of bipartisanship in 2010, Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress passed legislation to address the unfair crack/cocaine sentencing disparity in federal law by reducing the disparity from 100-to-1 down to 18-to-1. And on January 30, 2014, the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 in favor of the Smarter Sentencing Act to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimums for specified drug offenses, and to allow courts to reduce sentences for persons convicted of crack cocaine offenses committed before the August 2010 sentencing reform. Republican coauthors include Senators Mike Lee (UT), Rand Paul (KY) and Ted Cruz (TX).

“For far too many years, we have had to watch harsh penalties applied disproportionately to Black and Brown urban communities,” said Susan Burton of A New Way of Life, who spent many years in prison herself for crack cocaine offenses. “This bill is a beginning to fairer sentencing policies in California.”

Mitchell’s bill is cosponsored by a dozen civil rights and criminal justice reform organizations across the state. Cosponsors include the Drug Policy Alliance, ACLU of California, A New Way of Life, California State Conference of the NAACP, Californians for Safety and Justice, California Public Defenders Association, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Ella Baker Center, Friends Committee on Legislation, National Council for La Raza, and the William C. Velasquez Institute.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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