In California, if you are convicted of possessing 14.25 grams of crack cocaine for sale, you are not eligible for probation. Yet if you get busted with the exact same amount of powder cocaine, you are.
You would have to be convicted of possessing twice as much powder cocaine -- 28.5 grams -- to trigger the legal threshold that would legally bar you from probation.
Crack and powder cocaine are in essence the same drug. National studies have found that they have almost identical effects on the body. Crack, contrary to popular public perceptions, is no more addictive than powder cocaine.
The disparity in the sentencing laws makes no logical sense. It is a racist relic of the so-called War on Drugs, which has sent huge numbers of poor African-Americans to prison for low-level crack offenses. Yet it enables those who traffic in larger amounts powder cocaine, and who tend to be whites -- to receive less severe sentences.
Now California has a chance to begin fixing the mess.
State Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, has introduced the California Fair Sentencing Act of 2014, which would make the criminal sentences for possession of crack and possession of powder cocaine the same.
"We're trying to break the drug-related cycle of offenses, incarceration, subsequent unemployability and recidivism in urban communities," Mitchell recently said.
The Assembly is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday. If it passes, it will go back to the Senate for a concurrence vote. If there are no glitches, the bill would go to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 1,000 people are in state prison for possessing crack cocaine for sale. Of these, 98 percent were nonwhites. Between 2005 and 2010, African-Americans accounted for 77 percent of those imprisoned for possession for sale of crack cocaine. Blacks make up just 6.6 percent of the state's population.
African-Americans are not more prone to abuse crack than other ethnic groups. Studies have shown that crack cocaine use is about the same among all racial and ethnic groups.
The difference lies in who typically gets prosecuted.
To understand how we got to where we are, you have to go back to the mid-'80s.
It was then that a cheap form of smokable cocaine began to make its way into inner-city neighborhoods. This development coincided with then-President Ronald Reagan's efforts to amp up the war on drugs. Crack was depicted as a super evil monster drug that was far more dangerous than powder cocaine. Crack-related offenses therefore necessitated tougher sentences.
In 1986, the federal government adopted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established a 100:1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine. That meant someone who had 500 grams of powder cocaine was subject to the same five-year mandatory prison sentence as someone convicted of possessing 5 grams of crack. California passed its own version of mandatory minimum sentences a year later.
As civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander outlined in "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," law enforcement did not target wealthy suburbs or college campuses that were awash in powdered cocaine. They went after the low-hanging, politically palatable fruit. They focused on open-air drug markets and crack houses in the inner-city, where it was easy to find people to round up. Many of them with substance abuse issues or low-level dealers.
This mass incarceration of African-Americans for nonviolent drug offenses has had a disastrous impact on communities.
There has been a trend in the last few years to reform the unfair drug sentencing laws. In 2010, Congress reduced possession of crack cocaine from a felony to a misdemeanor and raised the amounts of crack cocaine that triggers a mandatory minimum sentence. The crack vs. powder ratio has gone from 100:1 to 18:1. That's better, but it's still not 1:1, as it should be.
States have also been slowly reforming their laws.
Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights is one of the co-sponsors of the California Fair Sentencing Act, which the Legislative Analyst's Office says would save millions of dollars.
"It's really modest in terms of what it's trying to achieve," says Jennifer Kim, state policy and field director for the Ella Baker Center. "It just doesn't make any sense to treat a drug that has two different names differently just because of who is using it."
Or at least the perception of who is.
Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Thursday and Sunday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at Twitter.com/tammerlin.