Holly Mitchell bill would equalize CA penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses

Fair Sentencing Act eliminates disparities in prosecuting middle class vs low income drug sales

SACRAMENTO, CA —Senator Holly J. Mitchell (D-South Los Angeles) has introduced SB 1010, co-sponsored by the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (CACJ), to set the same penalties for sale of crack cocaine as now apply to the equally illegal sale of powder cocaine. In current California law, sentences for intent-to-sell crack convictions range from three to five years, but for powder only two to four years. Because crack cocaine is cheaper than the powdered version, there are more crack convictions in low income and minority communities. Senator Mitchell’s bill would correct the unjustified disparity in sentencing, probation and asset forfeiture guidelines for low level crack and powder cocaine offenses. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates millions of dollars in savings for state and local governments if SB 1010 becomes law.

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

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

According to national survey data, crack cocaine use is approximately equal among all ethnic and racial groups. However, according to intake data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 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 percent 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%.

“Even though crack and powder cocaine have the same physiological and psychotropic effect, a person who is a low-level dealer in crack can face a much long prison sentence than a high-level dealer in powder.  This disparity unfairly allows persons who traffic in powder cocaine to escape lengthy prison terms while amplifying the number of minorities who serve longer terms just because they traffic in crack,” said Eric Schweitzer, CACJ Legislative Committee Co-Chair.  “Senator Mitchell’s bill promotes colorblind equality in criminal justice.”

We’re trying to break the drug-related cycle of offenses, incarceration, subsequent un-employability and recidivism in urban communities,” said Senator Mitchell, who chairs California’s Legislative Black Caucus. “The law isn’t supposed to be a pipeline that disproportionately sucks in the young and unemployed who are most vulnerable to illegal drug traffic.”

Mitchell’s bill is cosponsored by nearly a dozen civil rights and criminal justice reform organizations across the state; 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.



California Attorneys for Criminal Justice membership includes both attorneys and associated professionals throughout California and in other states. Through its membership, CACJ continues to be the only statewide association of its kind in the country. CACJ works to defend the rights of persons as guaranteed by the United States Constitution, the Constitution of the State of California and other applicable law, preserve due process and equal protection of the law for the benefit of all persons, enhance the ability of its members to discharge their professional responsibilities through educational programs, publications and mutual assistance, and protect and foster the independence of the criminal defense lawyer and to improve the quality of the administration of criminal law.