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Cracking the Racial Disparity for Cocaine Sentencing

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Is it fair to penalize an intoxicated perpetrator of vehicular manslaughter more severely if he or she imbibed cheap wine rather than Scotch whiskey? Of course not. The US Sentencing Commission provided this analogy in 1997 to support equalizing penalties for crack and powder cocaine. At the time, possession of crack cocaine resulted in penalties 100 times higher than possession of an equal amount of the powdered form. These harsher penalties fall disproportionately on African Americans and other people of color: Despite comparable rates of usage, people of color are more likely to be sentenced and incarcerated for crack cocaine than their white counterparts.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the federal penalty ratios from 100:1 to 18:1. California may surpass federal reform with Sen. Holly Mitchell’s Senate Bill 1010, which would reduce the sentence for possession of crack cocaine for sale from 3-5 years to 2-4 years, thus matching the penalties for powder cocaine and equalizing eligibility for probation. The bill has passed the state Senate and is currently in the state Assembly.

Despite negligible pharmacological differences, harshly disparate penalty-by-the-pound sentencing developed amid widespread "crack panic" in the 1980s. Crack rocks are sold in smaller and cheaper amounts than powder cocaine, suiting those who can only afford one hit at a time. Violence associated with crack stems from distribution in disadvantaged neighborhoods; income, education, and mental stability are better indicators of violence and health problems than cocaine variant.

“Whether sold as crack or powder, used on the street or in a corporate penthouse, the penalty for cocaine use should be the same for everybody,” Sen. Mitchell stated in a press release.  At the June 6th San Francisco Sentencing Commission hearing, District Attorney George Gascón similarly recognized that equalizing sentencing makes “…good social sense and good public safety sense.”

While opponents to the bill — including the California Narcotic Officers' Association and the California Police Chiefs' Association — favor equalization by raising the penalties for powder cocaine, reducing over-incarceration for drug offenses could increase funding available for treatment programs, including group and individual therapyvoluntary vaccinations that block the “high,” and treatment incentives that help attendees advance from focusing on short-term rewards to valuing long-term recovery. In 2001, Portugal extended treatment programs and decriminalized personal possession of all drugs, resulting in fewer drug-related deaths, diseases, and social ills. While the US has the highest cocaine use in the world, Portugal now ranks among the lowest.

Recovering from addiction is an immense personal challenge. To recover from a conviction requires overcoming institutional barriers to reintegration, such as in housing and employment. By equalizing probation eligibility for cocaine offenses, SB1010 recognizes drug abuse as a health issue, an essential step in reducing reoffending. By equalizing sentencing, SB1010 promotes racial equality, a non-negotiable component of a fair and just society.

Keywords: drug policy, legislation, racial disparities

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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