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Calif.'s Fair Sentencing Act Treats Crack Like Cocaine

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By Brett Snider, Esq. on October 01, 2014 9:07 AM

California has eliminated the sentencing differences between crack and cocaine offenses, as Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Fair Sentencing Act into law on Sunday.

The Act, also known as SB 1010, mirrors the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which narrowed the gap in federal law between the punishments for crack and cocaine offenders. But California's law goes further, treating cocaine and "cocaine base" (read: crack) the same in terms of punishing drug convicts.

What does this change mean for drug offenders in California?

Higher Penalties for Crack Eliminated

Criminal laws in California and throughout the nation have been amended over the last few decades to address what many saw as a serious criminal threat -- crack cocaine. Because of the laws specifically targeting crack, it was possible for a crack dealer to serve substantially more time in prison and be subject to criminal forfeiture for selling half as much crack (by weight) as a dealer selling powder cocaine. As Slate notes, this had the perverse effect of imprisoning more blacks for cocaine-related crimes, which many attribute to the racism that permeated of crack-focused drug laws.

Federal law changes and presidential pardons were small steps toward closing the chasm between these two similar drug crimes, and California's Fair Sentencing Act has completely bridged it, at least in the Golden State. The text of SB 1010 normalizes California drug law by:

  • Making the weight of drugs required for convicts to be subject to criminal forfeiture equal for crack and cocaine -- 28.5 grams; and
  • Changing the sentencing range for crack offenses to match that of cocaine offenses -- two, three, or four years.

Supporters like the Dr. Paul Song of the Courage Campaign believe that SB 1010 will end the "ridiculous, racist sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, which unfairly punishes people of color more harshly than white people for using the same drug, and saving millions of taxpayer dollars in the process."

Goes Into Effect in 2015

Without any emergency provisions calling for immediate enactment, SB 1010 won't go into effect until January 1, 2015. In a press release on Tuesday, the bill's author, State Sen. Holly J. Mitchell confirmed that her bill's changes won't go into effect until next year.

Prosecutors may choose to delay sentencing for crack cases until January to avoid conflicting with the new law.

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