New law eliminates different penalties for crack and powder cocaine violations

September 29, 2014

Governor signs Mitchell bill to end higher sentences for crack convictions

SACRAMENTO, CA — Governor Brown has chosen to end disparate sentencing for cocaine-related offenses in California by signing SB 1010, introduced by Senator Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), who argued that imposing stiffer fines and jail sentences for crack cocaine violations than for those involving powder cocaine unfairly set up the poor and minorities for harsher criminal penalties because crack is cheaper than the powdered form of the drug. Although studies show that cocaine has substantially the same effect on users in either form, heretofore crack-related convictions drew sentences ranging from three to five years under state law, but for powder only two to four years. When SB 1010 goes into effect in 2015 the differences in fines and probation, which have also favored those convicted of powder cocaine offenses, will be eliminated as well.

“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 Senator Mitchell, chair of California’s Legislative Black Caucus. “My bill establishes fairness in sentencing."

Between 2005 and 2010, Blacks accounted for 77% of state sentences for possession of crack for sale, Latinos accounted for 18% and Caucasians accounted for less than two percent of all those sent to California prisons on cocaine-related charges.

“Halting the law’s discrimination in favor of powder cocaine abusers over crack cocaine abusers just begins to level the playing field of criminal enforcement, still it’s a welcome and long overdue reform,” said Senator Mitchell. “Punishment must be fair, but we need to focus on rehabilitation, because when people can lead productive lives in their own communities everybody benefits.”

Mitchell’s measure was cosponsored by numerous organizations, including the Drug Policy Alliance, ACLU of California, A New Way of Life, Californians for Safety and Justice, California Public Defenders Association, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Ella Baker Center, Friends Committee on Legislation, National Council for La Raza, the William C. Velasquez Institute and the advocacy of the California State Conference of the NAACP.

“We must break the drug-driven cycle of arrest, lock-up, unemployability and re-arrest,” said Senator Mitchell, who sits on the Senate’s Public Safety Committee. “The law isn’t supposed to be a pipeline that disproportionately channels the young, urban and unemployed into jail and joblessness.”