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Crack & Powder Cocaine Convicts Would Get Same Prison Time Under New Bill

Crack & Powder Cocaine Convicts Would Get Same Prison Time Under New Bill
Office of Holly Mitchell

A Westside Democratic state Senator wants to reduce the length of state prison sentences handed out to people convicted of selling crack cocaine.

Sen. Holly Mitchell, who represents Culver City and parts of South L.A., says handing out different sentences for possession of crack for sales versus possession of cocaine for sales amounts to racism in the justice system.

Her office notes that crack actually contains less active narcotic than regular cocaine and that its use "is approximately equal among all ethnic and racial groups." Yet ...

 ... people of color account for more than 98 percent of those imprisoned for crack sales, her office says. More than 77 percent of the people put behind state bars for selling crack are African American. The white state prison population of crack convicts? Two percent.

Mitchell's bill would simply apply the same sentencing guidelines connected to intent-to-sell powder cases - 2 to 4 years. Crack sentences for the same weight are apparently 3 to 5 years.

The senator says:

Same crime, same punishment is a basic principle of law in our democratic society. 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.

Of course, at least some of the sentencing disparity stemmed from the 1980s crack epidemic in which the drug was peddled openly on the streets, families were devastated by addiction, and gangs were shooting enemies and innocents alike over sales turf.

Now, not so much.

The state Legislative Analyst's office says the bill could save taxpayers millions in prosecution and prison costs. It could also help California reach court mandates to reduce our prison population by tens of thousands to relieve overcrowding.

The Drug Policy Alliance hailed the legislation, known as SB 1010. That group's Lynne Lyman said:

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.

In 2010 Congress passed a law reducing the crack-to-powder federal sentencing ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.

And earlier this year the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee approved the Smarter Sentencing Act to reduce and in some cases eliminate so-called mandatory minimum sentences. The bill would also allow judges to reduce sentences for those convicted of crack cocaine offenses before the 2010 sentencing reform.

Mitchell concludes:

The law isn't supposed to be a pipeline that disproportionately sucks in the young and unemployed who are most vulnerable to illegal drug traffic.

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow LA Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews .