By Phillip Smith, StoptheDrugWar.org
California Gov. Jerry Brown Sunday signed into law the Fair Sentencing Act, which will undo racial disparities in the sentencing of cocaine offenders under laws passed during the crack cocaine hysteria of the 1980s. Brown did not issue a signing statement.
The law, Senate Bill 1010, eliminates sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses. It also eliminates related disparities in probation and asset forfeiture guidelines for those offenses.
“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 Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), chair of California’s Legislative Black Caucus. “My bill establishes fairness in sentencing. We must break the drug-driven cycle of arrest, lock-up, unemployability and re-arrest,” Mitchell went on to say. “The law isn’t supposed to be a pipeline that disproportionately channels the young, urban and unemployed into jail and joblessness.”
Although crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug, legislation in the 1980s, driven by fear, misinformation, and political posturing, created much harsher penalties for crack cocaine offenses.
The racial impact of those laws was dramatic. In California, 77% of people imprisoned for crack offenses are black, 18% are Hispanic, and less than 2% are non-Hispanic whites. With blacks making up only 6.6% of the state’s population, they are clearly being hit disproportionately by the crack sentencing disparity.
“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.”
The bill was sponsored by a dozen civil rights, racial justice, and criminal justice reform groups. It also won the support of the district attorneys of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and San Francisco counties.