California Fair Sentencing Act Clears First Hurdle


SACRAMENTO, CA — The California Fair Sentencing Act (SB 1010), authored by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), passed its first hurdle in the Senate Committee on Public Safety. Senator Mitchell’s bill will correct the groundless disparity in sentencing, probation and asset forfeiture guidelines for possession of crack cocaine for sale versus the same crime involving powder cocaine that has resulted in a pattern of racial discrimination in sentencing and incarceration in California. SB 1010 now moves on to the Appropriations Committee.

“There is no rational basis for the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing, and instead it causes an unjustified and devastating racial disparity in our correctional system and in our communities,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy advocate with the ACLU of California.

Garnering over 100 letters of support, the California Fair Sentencing Act boasts support from national civil rights groups (including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Advancement Project), human rights advocates (incl. Human Rights Watch and The Children’s Defense Fund), over a dozen Latino and immigrant rights groups (incl. MALDEF and CHIRLA), faith based collaboratives (incl. Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches and PICO California), leading drug treatment experts (incl. California Society of Addiction Medicine and Tarzana Treatment Centers), constitutional attorneys (incl. Dean of UC Irvine School of Law Erwin Chemerinsky and UC Berkeley School of Law Warren Institute Senior Fellow Barry Krisberg), and so many other organizations and individuals who believe that the time has come for equal justice under the law.

“Same crime, same punishment is a basic principle of law in our democratic society,” said Senator Mitchell, 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.”

The Senate Public Safety Committee staff analysis noted that African Americans are imprisoned for possession of cocaine base for sale at a rate 43.25 times that for Whites. Moreover, it noted that, “despite the fact that white adolescents use drugs at much higher rates than minority adolescents, the US Department of Justice found that juvenile arrests disproportionately involve minorities.”

Crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug. Scientific reports, including a major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, demonstrate that they have nearly identical effects on the human body. Crack cocaine is derived when cocaine powder is processed with an alkali, typically common baking soda. Gram for gram, there is less active drug in crack than in powder cocaine.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, people of color accounted for over 98% of persons sent to prison for possession of crack cocaine for sale in 2005-2010. Blacks accounted for 77.4% of state prison commitments for crack possession for sale, Latinos for 18.1%, and whites for less than 2%. Blacks make up 6.6% of the California state population, Latinos 38.2%, and whites 39.4%.

The California Fair Sentencing Act is cosponsored by a dozen civil rights and criminal justice reform organizations, including the Drug Policy Alliance, ACLU of California, A New Way of Life, California State Conference of the NAACP, 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, and the William C. Velasquez Institute.

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