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Five of the twenty-four California Assembly Republicans crossed over to join Democrats in passing the California Fair Sentencing Act (SB 1010) authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). Three of fifty-six Democrats voted against. Four Republicans and six Democrats were "absent."

For such a safely "blue" state, California is surprisingly all over the proverbial map on some progressive issues. It took the SCOTUS to overturn the shameful anti-gay marriage Prop 8. The 1994 Three Strikes Law, did nothing to reduce crime and with no attached funding for new prisons ended up getting California sued for overcrowding, forced to release convicts early and to explore privatization options.

This legislative session's drug policy results have been especially enigmatic. Industrial Hemp SB 566 (Sen. Mark Leno - SF), a bill to legalize cultivation of industrial hemp once federal law permits, was approved by the Senate 39-0 and Assembly 70-5 and signed into law by Gov. Brown. But then Possession of Controlled Substances: SB 649 (Sen. Mark Leno -SF) to downgrade simple possession of narcotics (opium, cocaine, peyote, etc.) from a mandatory felony to a wobbler (alternate misdemeanor or felony), passed the Senate 24-14 and the Assembly 41-31 but was then surprisingly vetoed by Gov. Brown despite the state's aforementioned prison overcrowding crisis.

This was followed by Drug Transportation: AB721 (Assemblyman Steven Bradford - Gardena) which Redefined "transportation" of drugs to mean "transportation for sale," thus eliminating felony penalties for marijuana transportation for personal use, passed the Assembly 44-33, the Senate 24-15 and was signed by Gov. Brown.

Next medical marijuana proponents were dismayed when their efforts to establish uniform, statewide guidelines for the industry were dashed when SB439/AB473 (Steinberg / Ammiano) fell four votes short in the Assembly due to intense opposition from law enforcement and the California League of Cities.

And so it was good news when the California Fair Sentencing Act (SB 1010) authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) was approved by the Assembly on Thursday on a 49-14 vote, returning it to the Senate for a final vote on amendments. It is anticipated that Governor Brown will sign it.

Mitchell’s bill will correct the groundless disparity in sentencing, probation and asset forfeiture guidelines for possession of crack cocaine for sale versus the same crime involving powder cocaine that has resulted in a pattern of racial discrimination in sentencing and incarceration in California.

Powder and crack cocaine are basically two forms of the same drug and "gram for gram, there is less active drug in crack cocaine than in powder cocaine" while according to the Journal of the American Medical Association their effect is basically the same.

As with most policies developed as part of the failed "war on drugs" over the past 50 years, the answer relates to the justice system's systemic targeting and incarceration of low-income, minority communities. Though national survey data indicates that crack cocaine use is approximately equal among all ethnic and racial groups, people of color account for more than 98 percent of those sent to California prisons for possession of crack cocaine for sale. African-Americans are a staggering 43.25 times more likely to be locked-up for this non-violent crime than are whites, face stiffer sentences, and fewer opportunities for probation supervision.

Under existing state laws, sentencing for crack cocaine possession for sale is greater that for powder.

Those who commit offenses related to powder cocaine also attain probation far more easily. Currently, anyone convicted of possessing a substance containing 28.5 grams or more powder cocaine for sale is not eligible for probation, but for crack cocaine, the threshold is 14.25 grams -- fifty percent less.

The result of all this is that 98% of those sent to prison for selling crack cocaine are people of color, with the overwhelming majority (77.4%) from 2005-2010, being blacks.

It is somewhat comforting that about 20% of the Republican Assembly supported this effort. Those Republicans who opposed it seemed to be of two camps. One member voted no because he believed the penalties for powder cocaine should have been increased to match those of crack; another just bloviated in a public radio interview that no quarter should be given to "drug addicts."  

This bill is step toward restoring some fairness in California's treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system. Let us keep our fingers crossed that Jerry Brown will sign it into law.

Originally posted to Doctor Jazz on Fri Aug 15, 2014 at 11:16 PM PDT.

Also republished by Good News, California politics, PostHuffPost: Connection-Conversation-Community , Los Angeles Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

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