Law Would Have Helped Curb Prison and Jail Overcrowding in California
California Remains One of Worst in Country with Harsh Drug Sentencing Standards
Governor Jerry Brown on Saturday vetoed SB 649, which would have given judges and district attorneys the discretion to charge possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use as a felony or a misdemeanor as the case warrants.
The bill, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and supported in the Legislature by some Republicans, as well as most Democrats, would have helped reduce prison and jail overcrowding in California and provided savings to the financially-strapped courts because felony charges require setting a preliminary hearing, whereas misdemeanor offenses do not.
“The Governor let down the people of California, the majority of whom support going even farther than this bill would have gone,” said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), one of the bill’s sponsors. “The vast majority of voters agree with the experts–locking up drug users is stupid, unproductive, cruel and expensive.” Leno’s bill provided a safe and logical opportunity to reduce the number of people incarcerated for simple drug possession.
Despite Realignment, as of December 31, 2012 there were 4,144 people in state prison for drug possession for personal use. The cost to incarcerate that many people in state prison for a year is over $207 million. Current law provides for up to three years of prison, even for a small amount of drugs for personal use.
The bill did not change the upper penalty, but would allow prosecutors or judges to punish drug use as a misdemeanor with up to a year in jail, or divert drug users to treatment or community programs to reduce recidivism.
“Our system is broken,” Lyman said. “Felony sentences don’t reduce drug use and don’t persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release – three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities.”
Two months after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the nation’s plan to scale back federal prison sentences for low-level drug crimes, California is still struggling for consensus on how to comply with a federal mandate to reduce prison overcrowding. SB 649 would have brought California closer to the standard of 13 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government, which already treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Drug crime is not higher in those states.Furthermore, a statewide poll conducted by Tulchin Research in 2012 showed that an overwhelming majority of Californians support this type of drug sentencing reform, with 75 percent of Californians favoring investment in prevention and alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders. In addition, 62 percent of Californians agree that the penalty for possessing a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use should be reduced to a misdemeanor.
According to state data, there are 10,000 convictions for possession of heroin and cocaine for personal use each year in California. The majority of these 10,000 sentences are to felony probation.
How this number would have changed if SB 649 had been implemented remains unknown because the bill grants total discretion in charging decisions to the local prosecutor. But experts believe that approximately 15 to 30 percent of cases statewide would likely have been charged as misdemeanors, resulting in hundreds of millions in savings to state and local governments, including the courts.
Anticipated savings would have provided greater flexibility to local governments to invest in drug treatment and mental health services, or to focus law enforcement resources on more serious offenders.
“We know we can reduce crime by offering low-level offenders rehabilitation and the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities, but we are currently doing the opposite,” Leno said last month after the Assembly passed the bill, reports Josh Richman at Political Blotter. “We give nonviolent drug offenders long terms, offer them no treatment while they’re incarcerated, and then release them back into the community with few job prospects or options to receive an education.
“SB 649 gives local governments the flexibility to choose reduced penalties so that they can reinvest in proven alternatives that benefit minor offenders and reserve limited jail space for serious criminals,” Leno said.
Leno’s bill does not apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale. The bill is co-sponsored by the ACLU, Drug Policy Alliance, CA-NAACP, California Public Defenders Association, National Council for La Raza, William C. Velasquez Institute, Californians for Safety and Justice, and Friends Committee on Legislation.