Yesterday, the California Assembly passed SB649, which gives prosecutorial and judicial discretion to charge possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use as a felony or a misdemeanor as the case warrants, with 41 votes, including some Republican support. The bill, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) helps reduce prison and jail overcrowding in California and potentially even provide savings to the financially-strapped courts because felony charges require setting a preliminary hearing, whereas misdemeanor offenses do not.
“Our system is broken,” said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance
, one of the bill sponsors. “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.”
Less than a month 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. Governor Brown and the Assembly Democrats have struck a shocking deal involving making use of a private prison facility, one owned by notorious Corrections Corporation of America, but with unionized state prison guards getting the custody jobs. Even in this deep blue state, the lucrative incarceration business
feeds Democrats and Republicans alike. Senate Democrats have introduced an opposing plan that would expand Realignment through additional funds to counties.
It is critical that the Legislature devise a solution that reduces the inmate population without increasing long term spending on housing inmates. SB 649 provides 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 drug for personal use.
“Noting that lengthy prison terms do not seem to be the best approach for drug users, or for California’s budget, I was heartened to see some Assembly Republicans standing in favor, or at least not opposed, to this common sense solution,” said Lyman.
According to state data, there are 10,000 convictions for felony drug possession for personal use each year in California. The majority of these 10,000 sentences are to felony probation. How this number would change if SB 649 were implemented remains unknown because the bill grants total discretion in charging decisions to the local prosecutor. Anticipated savings will provide greater flexibility to local governments to invest in drug treatment and mental health services, or to focus law enforcement resources on more serious offenders.
Leno’s bill, which does not apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale, will help alleviate overcrowding in county jails, ease pressure on California’s court system and result in millions of dollars in annual savings for local governments. 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.
Across the country, 13 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government already treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Drug crime is not higher in those states. 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.