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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Correcting the Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

Yesterday, SB 1010 passed in the California Senate, and it is on its way to the Assembly. The purpose of the bill is to eliminate all disparity between the sentences for possession with intent to sell of crack  and powder cocaine, by reducing the sentence for the former from 3, 4, or 5 years, to 2, 3, or 4 years. It also eliminates the differences in quantities (a 1:2 ratio in California) between the two drugs for a variety of manufacturing offenses and mandatory prison sentences. 

For those unfamiliar with California sentencing, we do not have a sentencing commission. Our sentences are meted out by the legislature, and felony sentencing follows a "triad" of offenses. After Cunningham v. California (part of the Apprendi line of cases), the judge can pick any of the three sentences (but nothing above, below, or in between).

The passage of SB 1010 is a reminder of how much the zeitgeist has changed. Four District Attorneys--in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and San Francisco--are supporting the proposition. In a few short years, the crack/cocaine disparity has lost favor fairly dramatically.

That the disparity is proxy for racial discrimination is now a commonly held perspective (see here and here), but it is not a wall-to-wall consensus. There are still commentators who believe that the addictive power per molecule justifies a disparity, and others who attribute the rise in urban crime in the 1990s to the crack epidemic. As many readers know, the Obama administration reduced the federal disparity from 100:1 to 18:1. With public climate about crack sentencing considerably altered since the 1990s, I think we can expect SB 1010 to pass in the Assembly in August and reach Governor Brown's desk soon.

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cross-posted to California Correctional Crisis.

Posted by Hadar Aviram on June 5, 2014 at 09:56 AM | Permalink

Comments

Maybe my memory is faulty, but I seem to recall that the severe penalties for crack cocaine were instituted at the insistence of black legislators who were very disturbed at the extreme problems that crack use was causing in their communities. That doesn't mean it's not time to revisit the issue.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | Jun 8, 2014 9:17:07 AM

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