California's Fair Sentencing Act Makes All Crack Crimes Equal

By McCarton Ackerman 10/01/14

California has put into law a bill that will equalize sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenders.

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Sen. Holly Mitchell. Photo via

A new bill passed in California has reformed drug sentencing laws by equalizing prison sentences for drug offenders charged with powder and crack cocaine possession.

The California Fair Sentencing Act was signed last Sunday by Gov. Jerry Brown and ensures that anyone convicted of most offenses involving crack cocaine will not receive harsher punishments than those convicted of the same crimes involving the powder form of the drug. The Drug Policy Alliance has reported that minorities represent almost everyone currently in California prisons for the crime of crack for sale.

That felony crime currently comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of three years, but the new act calls for that to be trimmed down to two years so that it’s in line with the sentencing for powder cocaine. Crack offenders will also be eligible for probation for the first time since the 1980s, which could keep up to several thousand people out of prison each year and save taxpayers $1 million annually. Lynne Lyman, head of the California state branch of the Drug Policy Alliance, called the policy a “blow to institutional racism” and a commitment to undoing the failed policies of the current drug war.

“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,” said Democratic State Sen. Holly Mitchell, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus and the bill's author. “The law isn’t supposed to be a pipeline that disproportionately channels the young, urban and unemployed into jail and joblessness.”

The sentencing disparity was created in 1986 and the state’s prison population soared afterwards, eventually reaching a peak of 150,000 in 2009. Before his death in 2012, African-American state legislator Mervyn Dymally unsuccessfully tried to pass similar versions of the bill in 2004 and 2007. Barack Obama signed a bipartisan four years ago that reduced, but didn’t completely eliminate, the discrepancy in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine.

But in recent years, the general public has begun to support drug treatment over prison for non-violent drug crimes. Democrats and Republicans have also begun to work together in drafting laws that would soften penalties for drug crimes.

However, Brown has yet to declare a stance on Proposition 47, a ballot initiative that would reduce penalties for simple possession of drugs and a range of petty crimes.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.