The state Senate on Wednesday approved a measure that would reduce the penalty for possession of crack cocaine for sale to the same as that for powder cocaine and make it easier to get probation for both.
Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) said her bill is necessary to address racial discrimination in the decision of who to send to prison.
Supporters cite state prison statistics showing that African Americans were imprisoned for possession of crack cocaine for sale at a rate 43.25 times that for Caucasians.
“In my opinion, the only practical solution to the racial disparity in cocaine sentencing, and to a failed but unending and costly drug war, is to lower the penalties associated with both forms while investing in effective prevention and rehabilitation to reduce demand," Mitchell told her colleagues.
She said the current laws have led to "institutional racism."
Mitchell cited a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. that said the two forms of cocaine have essentially identical effects on the human body.
The bill won the bare minimum 21 votes , which now goes to the Assembly for consideration, would set the possible jail terms for possession for sale of cocaine base, known as crack, at two, three, or four years, the same penalty for possession for sale of powder cocaine. Currently possession for sale of crack cocaine calls for a sentence of three, four or five years.
By reducing prison sentences, the state can save millions of dollars, according to a legislative analysis.
"Our current law is discriminatory,” Lyman said. "As one of only 12 states left in the country that maintains this unjust disparity in cocaine sentencing, I am eager to see Sen. Mitchell’s bill gain swift approval in the Assembly.”
Opponents include the California Narcotics Officers Assn. and the California Police Chiefs Assn. which argued for raising penalties for powder cocaine trafficking.
“Candidly, the damages done to individuals, families and neighborhoods by virtue of cocaine trafficking are severe,” the chiefs said in a letter to senators. “Although we support equalizing the penalty structures, we do not believe that drug traffickers - who visit real harm on communities - should be the beneficiaries of legislation that equalizes the penalty structure.”