State Legislature Considers Bill to Address Racial Disparities in Sentencing For Cocaine Sales

Press Release March 28, 2004
Media Contact

Simeon Gant at (916) 444-3751

SACRAMENTO-A bill to address the disparity in sentencing for ‘crack’ cocaine and powder cocaine will be heard in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety, Tuesday, March 30, at 9:00a.m. The hearing will take place at the State Capitol, Rm. 126 in Sacramento.

AB 2274 (Dymally), if passed, will make equal the punishment for possession of cocaine powder for sale and the same crime involving cocaine base, commonly referred to as “crack.” Current California state law requires a judge to sentence anyone possessing ‘crack’ cocaine for sale to 3 to 5 years in prison. This is a more severe penalty than for the same crime involving powder cocaine, which yields a 2 to 4 year sentence.

State Department of Justice (DOJ) statistics show that African Americans make up the vast majority of convictions for possession of cocaine base–the smokeable form commonly referred to as “crack.” Although Blacks account for 6.4% of the state population, 2001 DOJ statistics show that African Americans made up 67.2% of those convicted of possession for sale; whites made up 3.4% of convictions.

“Whatever the original intent, punishing possession of crack more severely than powder has resulted in thousands of Black men and women going to prison for longer periods of time” said Simeon Gant of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national criminal justice reform organization with an office in Sacramento. “There is a clear racial inequity here and as long as it exists the perception of injustice will continue to grow and foster continued disrespect of our criminal justice system.”

Looking at the federal disparity, the 1997 U.S. Sentencing Commission Report stated, “If the impact of the law is discriminatory, the problem is no less real regardless of intent. The problem is particularly acute because the disparate impact arises from a penalty structure for two different forms of the same substance.”

The report goes on to say, “Bad laws weaken respect of good laws.”

Reform advocates point to scientific research that indicates that there is little difference in the effect on the human body between smoked cocaine, and powder cocaine. An article from a 1996 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association stated “The physiological and psychoactive effects of cocaine are similar regardless of whether it is in the form of cocaine hydrochloride or crack cocaine (cocaine base).”

The article goes on to say that the most important differences are cost and duration of the high–crack is cheap, its high intense but short-lived. Crack is made by taking powder cocaine, mixing it with water and baking soda, and then drying it into a smokable rock–actually gram for gram, there is less active ingredient in cocaine base than in cocaine powder. “We are punishing Blacks more severely for using or selling poor man’s cocaine–it’s like adding years to a drunk driving sentence because someone was drinking cheap wine instead of Martinis,” said Gant.

Cost savings of $52.7 million dollars is based on the annual conviction rate of 1700 times the cost of incarcerating them for one year at $31,000 each. DOJ statistics suggest that the conviction rate is closer to 2200, and therefore the savings will exceed 68.2 million dollars.

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Support Letters and Witnesses for AB 2274 (Dymally)

Drug Policy Alliance (Sponsor)
National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives
Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church
NAACP–National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
American Civil Liberties Union
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
California Association of Alcohol and Drug Program Executives
California Attorneys for Criminal Justice
California State Employees Association
Friends Committee on Legislation
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
National Council of La Raza
Tarzana Treatment Centers

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

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