California Reduces Disparities in Drug Sentencing Laws

September 30, 2014

This past weekend Governor Brown announced that he had signed Senate Bill 1010 into law, eliminating the disparity between sentences for possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine for sale in California. SB 1010 continues a positive national and statewide trend of divesting from drug war policies that are ineffective in promoting — and can be harmful to — public safety.

Crack cocaine is a product derived from processing powder cocaine with an alkali, such as baking soda, to make it smokable. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that crack cocaine and powder cocaine are essentially the same drug and can cause the same effects when used.

Despite the similarities between these two products, sentencing laws differ in how the substances are penalized in the criminal justice system. Nationally, individuals selling small amounts of crack cocaine on the streets have received more severe sentences than have wholesale suppliers of powder cocaine. In California, possession for sale of powder cocaine has been subject to a felony jail term of two, three, or four years, whereas possession for sale of crack cocaine has been subject to a felony jail term of four, five, or six years.

These unbalanced penalties have more significantly affected communities of color, even though the likelihood of someone using crack cocaine does not differ based on their race given similar social and environmental conditions. From 2005-06 through 2009-10, African Americans in California were imprisoned for possessing crack cocaine for sale at a rate that was 43 times that of white people and four times that of Latinos.

SB 1010, authored by Senator Holly Mitchell, reduces the penalty for possessing crack cocaine for sale to a felony jail term of two, three, or four years, thereby bringing it in line with that for powder cocaine. Additionally, the bill aligns property forfeiture laws and probation eligibility requirements associated with crack cocaine with those for powder cocaine. This is a welcome reform that equalizes penalties for drug law violations and will help to reduce the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

This bill is also expected to have a positive impact on California’s finances. The Senate Appropriations Committee projected potential state savings from SB 1010 in the low millions of dollars each year. These savings would result from reduced prison sentences and fewer prison commitments. Given the prevalence of problematic drug use in California, these savings might best be invested in effective community-based drug treatment, education, and prevention services that could improve public safety in the longer term.

SB 1010 represents a muchneeded reform to a larger body of drug laws that have failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption of controlled substances; impeded public health measures designed to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, overdose fatalities, and other harmful consequences of problematic drug use; and resulted in arbitrarily harsher consequences for low-income communities.

— Selena Teji