Used to be that being successfully prosecuted for holding a decent quantity of crack could put you behind bars for up to five years.

No longer. California Gov. Jerry Brown last night signed a bill that will make possession of crack and possession of powder cocaine for sale the same crime, both worth two to four years in state prison.

That's no walk in the park, but drug decriminalization proponents are hailing the new law as one giant step for justice. Here's why:


Critics have long said that longer sentences for crack possession discriminate against African Americans and other people of color because the “rock” form of the drug is more prevalent in minority communities.

At the same time, white folks, who appear to prefer the powder form, have received lower sentences. It's called sentencing disparity. And whites are much less likely to be arrested for drugs in the first place, despite greater use rates. 

The Drug Policy Alliance says a whopping 98 percent of those in prison for crack-related crime in California are minorities. More than three-fourths are African American.

L.A.-area state Sen. Holly Mitchell's California Fair Sentencing Act, or SB 1010, eliminates the justice system's discrimination when it comes to crack and powder.

“My bill establishes fairness in sentencing,” she said. “We must break the drug-driven cycle of arrest, lock-up, unemployability and re-arrest.”

Paul Song, executive chairman of the California-based Courage Campaign, said the previous sentencing scheme “unfairly punishes people of color more harshly than white people for using the same drug” while costing taxpayers billions to imprison minorities convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.

Credit: Jake Sutton/Flickr

Credit: Jake Sutton/Flickr

The language of the law, which was backed by the ACLU and prominent civil rights organizations, says “cocaine hydrochloride [powder] and cocaine base [crack] shall be treated in an identical manner.”

The DPA states that there is “less active drug in crack cocaine than in powder cocaine” because the rock version is made with baking soda.

The organization says California is one of the last 12 states that still had sentencing disparities on their books for crack and powder. 

Lynne Lyman, the DPA's state director, said:

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. We are actively dismantling institutional racism.

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