California Assembly votes to reduce drug possession penalty

By Martin Williams

WCL News — The California Assembly voted September 4, 2013 to let prosecutors charge personal possession of illicit drugs as a misdemeanor rather than a felony case, as circumstances warrant. The bill, SB649 authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), passed with 41 votes and bipartisan support. It cleared the Senate earlier and now heads toward the governor’s desk after concurrence.

Current law provides for up to three years of prison, even for a small amount of drugs intended for personal consumption. The option of filing  misdemeanor charges is expected to help reduce prison and jail overcrowding in California and potentially reduce overall court costs because misdemeanor offenses do not require setting a preliminary hearing, as felony charges do.

A statewide poll conducted by Tulchin Research in 2012 found that an overwhelming majority of Californians support this type of drug sentencing reform, with 75% favoring prevention and alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders and 62% agreeing that the penalty for possessing a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use should be reduced to a misdemeanor.

“Felony sentences don’t reduce drug use and don’t persuade users to seek treatment,” said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the bill sponsors, “instead [they] impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release.” Lyman noted that those three things help to “keep people out of our criminal justice system and reintegrated into their families and communities.”

The vote comes on the heels of  US Attorney General Eric Holder’s August 29 announcement of the administration’s plan to scale back federal prison sentences for low-level drug crimes, even as California is struggling to comply with a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding. Governor Brown and Assembly Democrats have proposed making use of a private prison facility owned by notorious Corrections Corporation of America, but requiring that members of the state prison guards union get the custody jobs. Democrats have introduced an alternative plan in the state Senate to expand so-called ‘realignment’ through additional funds to counties to keep inmates in jail.

The lucrative incarceration industry feeds both Democrats and Republicans. Despite realignment, there were 4,144 people in state prison for drug possession for personal use as of December 31, 2012 at a cost to taxpayers of more than $207 million per year. The fact that SB 649 grants total discretion in charging decisions to the local prosecutor make its effect is difficult to predict. 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.

“Senate Bill 649 provides a safe and logical opportunity to reduce the number of people incarcerated for simple drug possession,” said Lyman, who points to state data showing there are 10,000 convictions for felony drug possession for personal use each year in California. The majority of these are sentenced to felony probation. The federal government, 13 states and the District of Columbia already treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Drug crime is not higher in those states.

Leno’s bill does not apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale and 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. — West Coast Leaf News Service

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