Senator Holly Mitchell Introduces Fair Sentencing Act to Eliminate Disparities Between Crack and Powder Cocaine Sentencing in California

Press Release March 16, 2014
Media Contact

<p>Contact: Lynne Lyman (213) 210-1023 or Charles Stewart (213) 745-6656</p>

SACRAMENTO, CA —Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) introduced Senate Bill 1010 to equalize the penalties for crack cocaine to the current penalties for powder cocaine.  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. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates millions of dollars in savings for state and local governments if SB 1010 becomes law.

”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.

“Whatever their intended goal, disparate sentencing guidelines for two forms of the same drug has resulted in a pattern of institutional racism, despite comparable rates of use and sales across racial and ethnic groups,” according to Lynne Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance.

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%.

“Eliminating this disparity is a very important step towards fulfilling the promise of equal justice and ending the pattern of racial discrimination and over-incarceration that has targeted Latinos and all communities of color for many years now,” Antonio Gonzalez, President, William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI).

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).

“There is no rational medical or penological reason for the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing, and instead it causes an unjustified and devastating racial disparity in our correctional system and in our communities,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy advocate with the ACLU of California.

“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 this offense. “This bill is a beginning to fairer sentencing policies in California.”

Mitchell’s bill, which does not apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or transporting cocaine, 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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