Press Release

Governor Jerry Brown Signs California Fair Sentencing Act to Eliminate Disparities in Crack and Powder Cocaine Sentencing

Civil Rights advocates Rejoice as California undoes this legal racial disparity enacted during the height of the drug war in the 1980s

<p>Contact: Lynne Lyman (213) 210-1023 or Charles Stewart (213) 745-6656</p>

SACRAMENTO, CA — Late yesterday evening, Governor Jerry Brown signed the California Fair Sentencing Act (SB 1010) authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). The legislation eliminates 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. The law takes effect in January.

“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.

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 a product derived when cocaine powder is processed with an alkali, typically common baking soda.  Gram for gram, there is less active drug in crack cocaine than in powder cocaine.

People of color account for over 98 percent of persons sent to California prisons for possession of crack cocaine for sale.  From 2005 to 2010, Blacks accounted for 77.4 percent of state prison commitments for crack possession for sale, Latinos accounted for 18.1 percent. Whites accounted for less than 2 percent of all those sent to California prisons in that five year period. Blacks make up 6.6 percent of the population in California; Latinos 38.2 percent, and whites 39.4 percent.

“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 Mitchell, 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.”

Mitchell’s bill was sponsored by a dozen civil rights, racial justice and criminal justice reform organizations across the state, and supported by District Attorneys of four counties: Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Santa Barbara and San Francisco. Cosponsors include 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. The California Fair Sentencing Act garnered over 150 letters of support from across the state and the nation, including legal scholars and drug treatment associations.

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