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

Proposition 47 Would Continue Trend Toward Local Public Safety Solutions

September 10, 2014

Yesterday the CBP released an analysis of Proposition 47, “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” which will appear on the November 4 statewide ballot. The measure would reclassify seven categories of nonviolent drug and property crimes as misdemeanors, thereby reducing penalties for various low-level offenses (except for individuals with specific serious, violent, or sex offense histories). In addition, Proposition 47 would allow for resentencing of individuals who were previously convicted of the reclassified crimes.

In essence, the measure proposes a series of amendments to current sentencing law in California that would simplify, lower, and equalize the penalties for common nonviolent crimes, such as shoplifting and drug possession for personal use. By doing so, Proposition 47 would continue California’s recent trend of moving away from state corrections for nonviolent crimes and investing in local public safety solutions.

This type of sentencing modification was embodied more broadly in 2011 when the Legislature transferred — or realigned — responsibility for supervising individuals convicted of low-level felonies from the state to counties based on a framework proposed by Governor Brown. Despite the large-scale shift that realignment created, there may still be a need for a deeper revision of California’s sentencing laws.

California’s sentencing structure is a complex system of laws that offer little transparency into the purpose or effectiveness of the system as a whole. Competing goals of punishment and rehabilitation have swung largely in favor of incarceration since the 1970s. However, as our analysis of Proposition 47 shows, overreliance on incarceration can be harmful to communities and costly to the state. Additionally, sentencing outcomes are heavily influenced by the discretion of local criminal justice administrators — for example, police, prosecutors, and judges — which can result in a system of justice by geography. On the one hand, this can mean that where people live arbitrarily affects the likelihood they will be sentenced to a period of incarceration. On the other hand, flexibility in the system allows local jurisdictions to respond more effectively to the particular needs of their communities.

The Legislature, Administration, and judicial branch have all acknowledged a need for a more comprehensive revision of sentencing laws, but have been slow to take action, often due to disagreements over who should have what decision-making power and responsibility.

Proposition 47 presents an opportunity for voters to weigh in on one aspect of California’s sentencing structure: how to respond to certain nonviolent crimes. The measure would lead to a decline in incarceration and would invest the resulting state savings into drug and mental health treatment, school truancy and dropout prevention, and victim services. These three areas have been shown to improve public safety and could result in further criminal justice savings.

Insofar as the measure reduces criminal justice spending in the long term — both through decreased use of state prisons for nonviolent crime and through investment in local public safety solutions — California could use freed up resources to invest in critical public systems and services that are operating at severely diminished funding levels such as child care, education, and services for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

— Selena Teji