California lawmakers made a move this week toward reforming a drug policy that has been
widely criticized for unfairly punishing black people. The California Fair Sentencing Act, which
passed the state Senate’s Public Safety Committee by a vote of 4-2, would revise a decades-old
sentencing policy under which people convicted of crack offenses are dealt substantially harsher
punishments than those found guilty of analogous crimes involving powder cocaine.The bill
would reduce mandatory sentences faced by people found with crack that they allegedly obtained
in order to sell. It would also make more defendants eligible for probation and would restrict the
government’s ability to seize homes, bank accounts and other assets.
Over the past two decades, tens of thousands of Californians have spent time in the state’s prison
system after being convicted of the crack offense that the bill addresses, according to the Drug
Policy Alliance, a group that opposes punitive drug policies.
The vast majority are black. A common explanation for the racial disparity is that crack cocaine is
cheaper than the powder version of the drug, making it more popular in low-income black
neighborhoods. Despite the price difference, the two forms of cocaine aren’t much different.
Supporters of the bill point to a number of scientific studies, including an influential 1996 report
from the Journal of the American Medical Association, to argue that crack and powder cocaine
have similar effects on the brain.
Sen. Holly Mitchell (D), who sits on the Senate Public Safety Committee and wrote the bill, said
in a statement that the current law targets blacks and Latinos by punishing “cheap drug traffic”
more severely than “the white-collar version.”
Each year, about a thousand people are held in California’s prison system on the charge of crack
possession for sale, at a cost to the state of about $60 million per year. Blacks accounted for 77
percent from 2005 to 2010, and Latinos for 18 percent, according to an analysis of state data by
the Drug Policy Alliance. Whites, meanwhile, represented less than 2 percent of these prisoners.
To put those numbers in context, blacks make up just 6 percent of California’s total population,
Latinos are 38 percent and whites are 39 percent. A spokesman for the state corrections department
said the agency has no way of identifying the number of people serving time for powder cocaine
The bill will have to clear several more hurdles in the legislature before it has a chance of becoming
law. If it passes, it would bring California’s sentencing system more in line with the nation’s. In 2010,
Republicans and Democrats came together in Congress to pass a law that narrowed the federal
government’s own crack-versus-powder sentencing gap.
Source: Huff Post