California Senate Reduces Penalties For Crack Cocaine Sales

By Edmund Newton 05/30/14

The approved measure equalizes sentences for crack and powder cocaine.

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The California State Senate has approved a measure to equalize penalties for crack and powder cocaine.

The bill, authored by State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), seeks to correct a discriminatory system of punishment, which imprisons offenders found in possession of crack at a much greater rate than those in possession of powder cocaine. Because crack can be sold in small, low-cost amounts, it has been a popular drug in minority communities, and it is black and Latinos who comprise the vast majority of those convicted on crack charges. Powder cocaine, on the other hand, has often been the drug of choice of wealthy drug dabblers.

Though crack and powder cocaine are ingested differently, they are two forms of the same drug, having virtually identical effects on the human body.

“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,” Mitchell said after the bill was passed 21-12 along party lines on May 28. “My bill establishes fairness in sentencing and will help stanch the flow of young ex-cons into a pipeline of permanent unemployment."

The bill, which must pass the State Assembly and be signed by Gov. Jerry Brown before it becomes law, would reduce sentences for persons arrested for possessing crack with intention of selling it to the levels of those for selling powder cocaine. It would modify a 1987 law, passed during a period of widespread fear of a crack epidemic and gang warfare.

California is one of 12 states that in the 1980s enacted greater penalties for possession of crack, said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project. The others include Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Virginia, though Missouri reduced its disparities in sentencing in 2012.

The federal government took a particularly harsh approach to crack offenders. Before 2010, someone arrested with 5 grams of crack would be punished under federal law the same as an offender with 500 grams of powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.

Between 2005 and 2010, blacks accounted for 77 percent of California crack sentences, Latinos 18 percent, and whites less than two percent. According to a federal study, the rate of drug use for crack is roughly the same among black, Latinos, and whites.

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Edmund Newton is a Washington DC based writer, formerly on staff at the LA Times, Newsday and the New York Post. He has written for People, Time, Ladies Home Journaland Essence among other publications. Find him on Linkedin.