Reducing Mass Incarceration through Criminal Justice Sentencing Reform

Protecting Immigrants from Deportation for Low-Level Drug Offenses
Reducing the Penalties for Drug Possession: Prop 47
Asset Forfeiture Reform
Racial Disparities in California Criminal Justice System

Protecting Immigrants from Deportation for Low-Level Drug Offenses

The drug war has increasingly become a war against migrant communities. It fuels racial profiling, border militarization, violence against immigrants, intrusive government surveillance and, especially, widespread detentions and deportations. An analysis of federal immigration data, conducted by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, details how roughly 40,000 people have been deported for drug law violations every year since 2008. A staggering 250,000 – one-quarter of a million – people were deported for nonviolent drug offenses in just the past six years. In 2015 the Drug Policy Alliance is sponsoring two groundbreaking bills, sponsored by Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), that seek to turn the tide of discrimination and deportation for petty drug offenses: AB 1351 (Deferred entry of judgment: pretrial diversion) and AB 1352 (Deferred entry of judgment: withdrawal of plea).

California law currently provides for what’s called deferred entry of judgment for minor nonviolent drug offenses, most involving possession or use of drugs. A defendant is required to plead guilty, waive his or her right to a speedy trial, and complete a drug treatment program. If the program is completed, the criminal case is dismissed. However, this dismissal does not protect a defendant from federal consequences, including deportation for non-citizen residents. DPA is honored to be partnering with numerous immigration rights advocates to cosponsor these life-changing bills that will help keep families.

Such commonsense reforms are critical for dismantling the war on drugs and ending the war on immigrants – a fight that is, in many ways, one and the same.

Reducing the Penalties for Drug Possession: Prop 47

After years of trying to reduce penalties for simple drug possession through the California State Legislature, including having Governor Jerry Brown veto our bill on the last day of the 2013 session, DPA actively supported the passage of Prop 47, The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014, which ended felony sentencing for drug possession and multiple petty theft crimes. In 2015 DPA is working with Los Angeles County allies to get as many records reclassified as possible before the November  2017 deadline. Please click here to learn more about Prop 47 Record Reclassification and contact la [at] drugpolicy [dot] org to get help with Prop 47 relief for you or your agency clients.

Asset Forfeiture Reform

Civil asset forfeiture law allows the government to seize and keep cash, cars, real estate, and any other property – even from citizens never charged with or convicted of a crime.  Because these assets often go straight into the coffers of the enforcement agency, these laws have led to a perversion of police priorities, such as increasing personnel on the forfeiture unit while reducing the number of officers on patrol and in investigation units.

Civil asset forfeiture reform is an essential component to ending the war on drugs. In case after case across the country, thousands of citizens and their possessions are being unfairly targeted by overreaching members of law enforcement. Recognition of the urgent need for reform is quickly growing among legislators on both sides of the aisle. In California, DPA is working to end this injustice with SB 443, a bill by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) that would require a conviction of a crime before assets can be seized, defendant representation and more rigorous reporting requirements to ensure greater transparency of activities. Working with our co-sponsors the Institute for Justice and ACLU, we continue to prioritize the rights of all people to due process and equal treatment under the law.

Further, as California has been home to some of the most high-profile and egregious abuses of asset forfeiture policies, DPA recently released Above the Law: An Investigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses in California, a multi-year, comprehensive look at asset forfeiture abuses in California that reveals the troubling extent to which law enforcement agencies have violated state and federal law. While civil asset forfeiture was originally conceived as an effective way to target and drain resources away from powerful criminal organizations, Above the Law discloses how these strategies and programs have now become a relied-upon source of funding for law enforcement agencies all across the state.

Racial Disparities in California Criminal Justice System

In many ways, the racial disparities in California’s criminal justice system are more severe than the country’s as a whole. In 2012, black people comprised just 6.6 percent of California’s population in 2012, yet they represented nearly 15 percent of all people arrested for drug felonies in the state – and more than 25 percent of all felony arrests made in 2012 for “narcotics” (which include all offenses involving heroin or cocaine). In 2013, black people represented a staggering 29.4 percent of all people in the state’s prisons; and 28.8 percent of the state’s parolees. Worse yet, as of April 2013, nearly 50 percent of all individuals serving time in state prison for heroin or cocaine possession for personal use are black.

At the same time, data show that people of color are seriously underrepresented in the state’s drug treatment and mental health services systems. According to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, “African Americans are, indeed, disproportionately represented in arrest statistics for practically all misdemeanor and felony drug violations, despite being the least likely to be referred to treatment from the criminal justice system.”

Not only are black Californians more likely to be arrested for nonviolent offenses, but they are also significantly more likely to be incarcerated – and for longer periods of time – than white Californians for the same offenses.  The average prison sentence for a nonviolent offense is longer for black people than white people (16 months versus 12 months), and the average probation sentence is longer for black people than white people as well (43 months versus 41 months).

By certain categories of drug offenses, the overrepresentation of black Californians among the state’s felony drug arrests is even more dramatic: black people represented 31.3 percent of all arrests for those violations defined as “felony narcotic offenses.” This was especially true when it came to arrest and prosecution for crack cocaine. 2013 intake data from the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) revealed that people of color accounted for over 98% of persons sent to California state prisons for possession of crack cocaine for sale.  From 2005 to 2010, black people accounted for 77.4% of state prison commitments for crack possession for sale, Latinos accounted for 18.1%. White people accounted for less than 2 percent of all those sent to California prisons in that five year period. Black people make up 6.6% of the population in California; Latinos 38.2%, and white people 39.4%. This disparity was addressed through the Drug Policy Alliance’s successful 2014 bill, SB1010, which equalized the sentencing penalties for crack and powder cocaine under California law as of January 1, 2015.

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