For many years, it has been that people who are caught selling or using crack cocaine have received higher sentences and harsher punishment than those who are accused of the same types of crimes, but instead with powder cocaine. Senator Holly Mitchell, a Democrat from Los Angeles, is introducing Senate Bill 1010 which is aimed to equalize the penalties for crack cocaine to the current penalties for powder cocaine.
"Same crime, same punishment is a basic principle of law in our democratic society,” said Senator Mitchell, Chair of the Black Caucus and 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.”
Crack Cocaine Vs Powder Cocaine
Crack cocaine and powder cocaine are essentially the same thing. It’s just that crack is a “lesser” version in that it is a cut down version of powder due to the way that it is made, but the only real difference is the purity and the name.
There have been studies done that were posted in the Journal of the American Medical Association that prove the effects of both drugs are nearly identical on the body. But in our legal system, it would seem from the outside that they are two completely different drugs, in terms of the way they are treated legally.
Disparate Sentencing Guidelines
“Whatever their intended goal, disparate sentencing guidelines for two forms of the same drug has resulted in a pattern of institutional racism, despite comparable rates of use and sales across racial and ethnic groups,” according to Lynne Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance.
According to intake data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, people of color account for over 98% of people sent to California prisons for possession of crack cocaine with intention to sell it. From 2005 to 2010, Blacks accounted for 77.4% of state prison commitments for crack possession with intention to sell, Latinos accounted for 18.1%.
Whites accounted for less than 2 percent of all those sent to California prisons in that period of five years. Blacks make up 6.6% of the population in California; Latinos 38.2%, and whites 39.4%. There is an obvious disparity here that the Senate Bill 1010 is trying to take care of.
“Eliminating this disparity is a very important step towards fulfilling the promise of equal justice and ending the pattern of racial discrimination and over-incarceration that has targeted Latinos and all communities of color for many years now,” Antonio Gonzalez, President, William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI).
In a show of cooperative bipartisanship in 2010, Republicans and Democrats in the US Congress passed legislation to address the disparity in crack/cocaine sentencing in federal law by reducing the disparity from 100-to-1 down to 18-to-1. There is still a large bias there but this was a huge step forwards.
Smarter Sentencing Act
And on January 30, 2014, the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 in favor of the Smarter Sentencing Act to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimums for specified drug offenses, and to allow courts to reduce sentences for persons convicted of crack cocaine offenses committed before the August 2010 sentencing reform. Republican coauthors include Senators Mike Lee (UT), Rand Paul (KY) and Ted Cruz (TX).
Despite the fact that there are still disparities out there for the sentencing of people who are caught with crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, there are large legal steps being taken here in California to stop this bias that exists. Hopefully, this Senate Bill 1010 will have effective results and the rest of the country will notice, and then enact their own types of bills that address the same problem.