Pubdate: Thu, 03 Jul 2014
Source: Sacramento News & Review (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Chico Community Publishing, Inc.
Author: Raheem F. Hosseini


Legislature Poised to Hear Reform Bill in August

On Wednesday, the state Assembly Appropriations Committee gaveled
through the California Fair Sentencing Act of 2014 on a 12-to-3 margin
(with two abstentions). Aided by a bullish review from the nonpartisan
Legislative Analyst's Office, the bill will hit the full floor in August.

The act, Senate Bill 1010, aims to reverse a drug policy that for
years incarcerated people of color for exponentially longer prison
terms than white individuals for violating essentially the same law:
possession of cocaine for sale.

"[It's] one of the most egregious missteps of the drug war," said
Glenn Backes, a public-policy researcher at the Drug Policy Alliance,
which endorses S.B. 1010.

The penal code in California currently treats crack cocaine-which
comes from cutting the drug with an alkali, like baking soda-more
seriously than it does the powder version. Anyone convicted of
possessing crack cocaine for sale faces a mandatory minimum prison
sentence of three, four or five years-and double those terms with a
prior strike conviction, like burglary or robbery.

A person who's busted for possessing cocaine powder earns prison terms
of two, three or four years. Probation or suspended sentences are also
easier to come by for convicted possessors of powdered coke.

Here's why that's effed up:

Between 2006 and 2010, 95.5 percent of those locked up in state
prisons for possessing crack for sale were people of color, according
to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation figures
analyzed by the Drug Policy Alliance. A whopping 77.4 percent were

Meanwhile, a national drug-use survey from the Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration in 2012 showed the use of crack
was approximately equal among all races.

None of this data is new.

Mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines were adopted at the federal
level in 1986 and a year later in California. According to Backes,
cocaine powder was still being medically prescribed in small doses
post-surgery at the time, one of the reasons it was treated
differently. But there was also a spurious assumption, fanned by the
media, that crack was deadlier and more addictive than powder cocaine.

"It wasn't long before the medical field said you're mistaken," Backes
said. A major study in the American Medical Journal was one of several
reports to debunk that claim.

There have been previous efforts to reform the law. Late Democratic
Sen. Mervyn M. Dymally tried to address the disparities in 2005 and
2008, but both efforts died in committee.

Sen. Holly J. Mitchell believes the climate has changed enough to give
her version of the bill a decent shot. "From my perspective, it just
seemed like the stars aligned," she said.

A bipartisan majority of the U.S. Congress passed a federal version of
this reform in 2010, and it was championed by such conservative
luminaries as Sen. Lindsey Graham, Newt Gingrich and California's last
Republican attorney general, Dan Lungren. Meanwhile, five other
conservative states have all beaten California to the punch in
modifying their sentencing disparities between crack and powder
cocaine, the Sentencing Project reports.

With such widespread support among red-state powers, you'd be forgiven
for thinking S.B. 1010 was riding a bipartisan wave here in the Golden
State. It's not.

"Thus far, we haven't gained one Republican vote for this law," said
John Skoglund, a legislative aide to Mitchell.

The bill did end up securing a lone Republican vote on Wednesday, from
former gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly.

The California Peace Officers Association, one of only two
organizations officially opposing S.B. 1010, believes the disparate
penalties should be streamlined the other way, so that powder busts
are more serious. But, added spokeswoman Sara Dwyer, the association
wasn't "actively engaged on this bill." The California District
Attorneys Association, which opposed earlier reform efforts, is
remaining neutral.

Four Bay Area and southern state DAs have authored strongly worded
letters of support for the proposed law. Outgoing Sacramento County DA
Jan Scully hasn't joined them.

Still, California may be finally catching up to the rest of the
country when it comes to less severe sentencing policies. State voters
overwhelmingly adopted three-strikes reform in 2012. And recently, an
initiative to lower the severity of certain drug offenses from
felonies to misdemeanors qualified for the November ballot.

As for the lasting impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences, Backes
described a grim one. "A number of black families [were] pulled
apart," he said. "The legacy is not just on those families, but on the
communities that had every reason to believe the system was rigged
against them."
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