The California Assembly today approved the Fair Sentencing Act, which would remove the legal disparity in the treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenders under state law.
The bill would remove not only sentencing disparities, but also disparities in the guidelines for probation and asset forfeiture in cases of possession of cocaine for sale. The disparities have resulted in a pattern of racial discrimination in sentencing and imprisonment in the state.
People of color account for over 98% of persons sent to California prisons for possession of crack cocaine for sale. From 2005 to 2010, blacks accounted for 77.4% of state prison commitments for crack possession for sale, Latinos accounted for 18.1%. Whites accounted for less than 2% of all those sent to California prisons in that five year period. Blacks make up 6.6% of the population in California; Latinos 38.2%, and whites 39.4%.
"Same crime, same punishment is a basic principle of law in our democratic society," said Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Black Caucus and member of the Senate Public Safety Committee. "Yet more black and brown people serve longer sentences for trying to sell cocaine because the law unfairly punishes cheap drug traffic more severely than the white-collar version. Well, fair needs to be fair," she said as she introduced the bill in March.
"Whatever their intended goal, disparate sentencing guidelines for two forms of the same drug has resulted in a pattern of institutional racism, with longer prison sentences given to people of color who are more likely than whites to be arrested and incarcerated for cocaine base offenses compared to powder cocaine offenses, despite comparable rates of usage and sales across racial and ethnic groups," she added.
Legislative analysis suggests the bill could save the state roughly $11 million a year in lowered incarceration costs, which would be only slightly offset by increased probation costs and decreased asset forfeiture revenues.
"The current disparities in our drug laws amount to institutional racism," said Lynne Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The Fair Sentencing Act will take a brick out of the wall of the failed 1980's drug war era laws that have devastated communities of color, especially Black and Latino men. The time has long come."
The bill has broad support not only from civil rights, racial justice, and criminal justice reform organizations, but also the endorsement of the district attorneys of the counties of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara.