This week, California may get one step closer to eliminating the racist laws that unfairly target low-income communities of color for incarceration. On Thursday, the California State Assembly will vote on a bill that would eliminate groundless disparities in punishment for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine for sale. Over the years, differences in enforcement and sentencing have resulted in clear racial discrimination, despite approximately similar rates of use of crack cocaine.
Introduced by State Senator Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), the California Fair Sentencing Act would make the sentences and probation guidelines for possession of crack cocaine for sale equivalent to the same crime involving powder cocaine.
Under existing state laws, anyone who possesses crack cocaine for sale faces three to five years in prison, while those who possess powder cocaine for sale face imprisonment for two to four years. Those who commit offenses related to powder cocaine also attain probation far more easily. Currently, anyone convicted of possessing a substance containing 28.5 grams or more powder cocaine for sale is not eligible for probation, but for crack cocaine, the threshold is 14.25 grams -- fifty percent less.
According to a major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, crack and powder cocaine are not fundamentally different drugs and have almost identical effects on the body. So why are the penalties different?
As with most policies developed as part of the failed "war on drugs" over the past 50 years, the answer relates to the justice system's systemic targeting and incarceration of low-income, minority communities. Though national survey data indicates that crack cocaine use is approximately equal among all ethnic and racial groups, people of color account for more than 98 percent of those sent to California prisons for possession of crack cocaine for sale. African-Americans are a staggering 43.25 times more likely to be locked-up for this non-violent crime than are whites, face stiffer sentences, and fewer opportunities for probation supervision.
The racial breakdown of the state's population versus the prison population makes starkly clear the disproportionate degree to which African Americans in California are locked up for crimes related to crack cocaine. Between 2005 and 2010, whites accounted for less than two percent of all those sent to California prisons for possession of crack cocaine for sale, though whites make up 39.4 percent of the state's population. African-Americans, alternatively, only make up 6.6 percent of the state's population, but they constituted 77.4 percent of the state prison population imprisoned for the same offense.
As Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, the disproportionate number of African-Americans who have faced incarceration and harsher sentencing than their white counterparts has led to less economic prosperity among already disenfranchised communities. The Ella Baker Center aims to end mass incarceration and reallocate resources away from prisons toward solutions that improve safety and prosperity for communities. This bill serves as one important step in that direction; it seeks to decrease inequitable sentencing policies that lead to minorities serving substantially longer prison terms.
Nationally, there have been promising developments with regards to sentencing reform. In 2010, by a unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate and an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House, Congress reduced the penalty for possession of crack cocaine from a felony to a misdemeanor, and reduced the disparate weight guidelines for mandatory minimums from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1 (many including President Obama wanted 1:1). In August 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder called for ending the practice of seeking mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent drug cases. Even Republican leaders like Rand Paul have introduced bills to eliminate sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine and to reduce the penalties for other nonviolent drug offenses. So considering that Democrats have a majority in the state legislature, California should be at the forefront of safe and smart criminal justice reforms -- not lagging behind.
The California Fair Sentencing Act has been co-sponsored by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, as well as ten other organizations including the National Council of La Raza and Drug Policy Alliance. If SB 1010 is passed, the Legislative Analyst's Office estimates state and local governments would save millions of dollars. But in order for the legislation to make it to the governor's desk, California residents must call on their representatives to vote yes.
By passing this legislation, and then investing the millions of dollars saved on employment programs and healthcare, the state would create more opportunities for disenfranchised communities, which would in turn make us all safer. Contact your assembly member at their capitol office and encourage them to vote yes.
For more information, please read about the bill here.