Reducing Mass Incarceration through Criminal Justice Sentencing Reform

Eliminating Racial Disparities in California Cocaine Sentencing Laws
Addressing the Collateral Consequences of Incarceration
Reducing Penalties for Drug Possession

Eliminating Racial Disparities in California Cocaine Sentencing Laws

California is one of only 12 states, along with the federal government, that still maintains a disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Disparate sentencing guidelines for two forms of the same drug results in a pattern of institutional racism, with longer prison sentences given to Blacks,  who are more likely than whites or Latinos to be arrested and incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses compared to powder cocaine offenses – even though the rates of crack use among different groups is roughly equal. In 2014, DPA is sponsoring Senate Bill 1010, authored by Senator Holly Mitchell, to equalize sentencing, probation eligibility and asset forfeiture guidelines for the two types of cocaine. Cosponsors include the ACLU, California NAACP, National Council of La Raza, William C. Velasquez Institute, A New Way of Life, Californians for Safety and Justice, Friends Committee on Legislation, and California Public Defenders Association. Click here to download the fact sheet.

According to 2013 CDCR census data, there are approximately 1000 people in California prisons for mere possession of crack cocaine.

In many ways, the racial disparities in California’s criminal justice system are more severe than the country’s as a whole. The ratio of Blacks to whites in prison in California is 6.5: 1, while nationally it is 5.6 : 1. In 2012, Blacks comprised just 6.6 percent of California’s population, yet they represented nearly 15 percent of all people arrested for drug felonies in the state – and more than 25 percent of all felony arrests made in 2012 for “narcotics” (which include all offenses involving heroin or cocaine). In 2013, blacks represented a staggering 29.4 percent of all people in the state’s prisons; and 28.8 percent of the state’s parolees. Worse yet, as of April 2013, nearly 50 percent of all individuals serving time in state prison for heroin or cocaine possession for personal use are Black.

At the same time, data show that people of color are seriously underrepresented in the state’s drug treatment and mental health services systems. According to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, “African Americans are, indeed, disproportionately represented in arrest statistics for practically all misdemeanor and felony drug violations, despite being the least likely to be referred to treatment from the criminal justice system.

Not only are black Californians more likely to be arrested for nonviolent offenses, but they are also significantly more likely to be incarcerated – and for longer periods of time – than whites for the same offenses.  The average prison sentence for a nonviolent offense is longer for blacks than whites (16 months versus 12 months), and the average probation sentence is longer for blacks than whites as well (43 months versus 41 months).

By certain categories of drug offenses, the overrepresentation of black Californians among the state’s felony drug arrests is even more dramatic: blacks represented 31.3 percent of all arrests for those violations defined as “felony narcotic offenses.” This is especially true when it comes to arrest and prosecution for crack cocaine. Intake data from the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) reveals that people of color account for over 98% of persons sent to California state 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%.

Addressing the Collateral Consequences of Incarceration

The life-long penalties and exclusions that follow a drug conviction have created a permanent second-class status for millions of Americans, who may be prohibited from voting, being licensed, getting a job, securing a student loan, accessing housing or other forms of public assistance, and any number of other activities and opportunities. The drug war’s racist enforcement means that all of these exclusions fall more heavily on people and communities of color. Even if a person does not face jail or prison time, a drug conviction record – particularly a felony record – often creates a lifelong ban on many aspects of social, economic and political life.

In 2013, Senate Bill 283 (Hancock), the Successful Reentry and Access to Jobs Act, which DPA cosponsored with the Western Center for Law and Poverty and the California Welfare Directors Association, did not make it out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee. SB 283 would have allowed people convicted of a drug felony to receive basic needs services, employment training and work supports through the federally-funded California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKS) and CalFresh programs, provided that they meet all other eligibility rules and are complying with the conditions of probation or parole, or have successfully completed probation or parole.

The Western Center for Law and Poverty has reintroduced a similar bill for the 2014 session, Senate Bill 1029.  In January, DPA, along with 72 other California organizations, signed on to a letter calling for the legislature to take action on this important issue.

Reducing Penalties for Drug Possession

Drug Possession Sentencing

DPA was proud to cosponsor Senator Mark Leno’s drug possession penalty reduction bill in 2013 and in 2012. Other cosponsors included the ACLU, California NAACP, National Council for La Raza, William C. Velasquez Institute, Friends Committee on Legislation, Californians for Safety and Justice, and the California Public Defenders Association. Passing through both houses in 2013, it was the first time a drug felony penalty reduction was approved by the state legislature in California history. Unfortunately, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill on the last day of the 2013 session.

DPA is supporting The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014, which will end felony sentencing for drug possession and petty theft crimes.