California has enacted legislation that will eliminate sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine possession convictions, a disparity that critics contended placed a disproportionate burden on minorities and amounted to racial discrimination in the state’s prison system.
California Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday signed on the California Fair Sentencing Act, the text of which asserts, "To mete out unequal punishment for the same crime (e.g., possession for sale of a particular form of cocaine), is wholly and cruelly unjust.”
The legislation was written and introduced by Sen. Holly Mitchell, a California senate Democrat from Los Angeles who also chairs the California Legislative Black Caucus.
“We must break the drug-driven cycle of arrest, lock-up, unemployability and re-arrest,” said Mitchell in a statement. “The law isn’t supposed to be a pipeline that disproportionately channels the young, urban and unemployed into jail and joblessness.”
“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 previously of her legislation. “My bill establishes fairness in sentencing."
The bill was hailed as a significant piece of penal reform and constitutes part of the broader national effort to rollback some of the legal penalties introduced into the criminal justice system over the last decades by the so-called "War on Drugs.”
“California is finally moving to the right side of history on this issue,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy advocate with the ACLU of California, which co-sponsored the legislation. “By signing the California Fair Sentencing Act … Gov. Brown has chosen a more equitable criminal justice system over failed, racially unjust drug war policies.
The ACLU said that 12 other states have laws that have sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine.
“The California Fair Sentencing Act takes 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,” said Lynne Lyman, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, “we are actively dismantling institutional racism. I hope California’s action gives momentum to the remaining 11 states that still retain this unjust and irrational racial disparity in their penal codes,” Lyman concluded.
The law’s sponsors said that between 2005 and 2010, blacks made up 77 percent of California’s sentencing for crack possession, with 18 percent for Latinos and less than two percent for whites.
The effort in California follows a similar piece of legislation signed by President Barack Obama in 2010.
The president signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 to reduce penalties for crack-cocaine offenses in order to reduce the disparity with powder-cocaine penalties. Subsequent efforts, including the Smart Sentencing Act, a legislation which is still pending in the U.S. Congress, would expand upon that law and free many more individuals charged with drug possession offenses that were not retroactively covered by the 2010 law.
As of 2010, there were more that 30,000 people behind bars for crack offenses nationwide, a number that falls heavily upon minority groups.
Obama has previously commuted a number of individual drug sentences, while the Justice Department announced in April a large-scale effort to grant clemency to thousands of incarcerated non-violent drug offenders.
Old sentencing guidelines subjected tens of thousands of black people to long prison terms for crack convictions while giving far more lenient sentences to those caught with cocaine who were more likely to be white. It was enacted in 1986 when crack use was rampant and considered a particularly violent drug.
With additional reporting by the Associated Press