POLITICS
09/29/2014 06:21 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2014

California Takes Overdue Stand Against 'Failed Drug Laws'

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

California lawmakers finally reformed a drug sentencing law that critics throughout the country long denounced as racist.

The California Fair Sentencing Act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) late on Sunday evening, ensures that people who are convicted of certain offenses involving crack cocaine will no longer receive harsher punishments than people found guilty of the same crimes involving the powder form of the drug.

Crack and powder cocaine are virtually the same drug, but crack is cheaper and more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a national advocacy group that opposes the drug war, people of color account for nearly everyone sent to California prisons for the specific crime of possession of crack for sale, a vaguely defined felony with a mandatory prison sentence of no fewer than three years. The new law will trim that sentence to two years, bringing it in line with the penalty for powder cocaine. The law will also make crack offenders eligible for probation for the first time since the 1980s.

The change comes four years after President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan law that reduced -- but did not eliminate -- the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine on the federal level.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D), chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus and the bill's author, addressed the sentencing discrepancy in a statement issued Sunday.

“Whether sold as crack or powder, used on the street or in a corporate penthouse, the penalty for cocaine use should be the same for everybody,” she said. “The law isn’t supposed to be a pipeline that disproportionately channels the young, urban and unemployed into jail and joblessness.”

Supporters expect several thousand people to enter probation instead of prison each year as a result of the sentencing change, and they estimate that taxpayers will save up to $1 million annually, according to Lynne Lyman, head of the California state branch of the Drug Policy Alliance. Lyman said the victory is also important on a symbolic level.

"It represents a willingness by California's government to begin to undo a litany of failed drug laws that we have put into place over the last 40 years, and in particular it represents a blow to institutional racism," she said.

California lawmakers created the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine in 1986, the same year Newsweek called crack the “most addictive drug known to man” -- an assertion that has since been rejected by many scientists. The state's prison population, which had already begun to climb, exploded over the next two decades, surpassing 150,000 in 2009.

That year, a panel of federal judges ruled that the state's prisons were so crowded that they violated the Constitution's ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment, a finding later affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In response, Gov. Brown shifted the responsibility for certain low-level offenders from the state to county governments, and the state prison population began to drop.

But in the last two years, it has been creeping up again. Supporters of the new law hope that the governor will consider addressing the problem by supporting other sentencing reforms -- such as Proposition 47, a ballot initiative that would reduce penalties for simple possession of drugs and a range of petty crimes like shoplifting.

In a sign that bodes well for such efforts, the bill signed on Sunday received far more support from the public and from lawmakers than similar measures introduced in the past. When Mervyn Dymally, an iconic African-American state legislator who died in 2012, threw his weight behind earlier versions of the bill in 2004 and 2007, none of his colleagues joined him as co-authors.

This time, all 12 members of the Legislative Black Caucus and three other lawmakers co-authored the bill. Two hundred professors, multiple civil rights groups and community organizations around the country sent letters of support to Brown's office.

A national shift in the public mood may help explain the happier fate of the latest legislation. Polls show that Americans across the political spectrum now prefer treatment to prosecution as a response to drug addiction, and liberals and conservatives have come together in a deeply divided Congress to draft laws that would soften the penalties for drug crimes.

"A lot has changed in the last 10 years," said Lyman. "Another 10 years of failed drug war policies have made it obvious to people who didn't see it before that the current approach to drug laws was not working."

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