SACRAMENTO – Senator Mark Leno has introduced new legislation that reforms California’s drug sentencing laws for simple possession. SB 649 allows counties to significantly reduce incarceration costs by giving prosecutors the flexibility to charge low-level, non-violent drug offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies. The bill also gives judges discretion to deem a non-violent drug possession offense to be either a misdemeanor or felony after consideration of the offense and the defendant’s record. SB 649, 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.
“If we want safer communities, our collective goal for low-level drug offenders should be helping to ensure that they get the rehabilitation they need to successfully reenter their communities,” said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. “Instead, we sentence them to long terms, offer them no treatment while incarcerated and release them back into our communities with few job prospects. This proposal gives prosecutors the option to reduce penalties so counties can reinvest in proven alternatives that would benefit minor offenders and save limited jail space for serious criminals.”
SB 649 will significantly reduce jail spending and allow local governments to dedicate resources to probation, drug treatment and mental health services that have proven most effective in reducing crime. It will also help law enforcement rededicate resources to more serious offenders. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates reducing penalties for drug possession will save counties about $159 million annually.
The bill is co-sponsored by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), Drug Policy Alliance, NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), California Public Defenders Association, William C. Velasquez Institute, Californians for Safety and Justice and Friends Committee on Legislation.
“Revising California’s harsh drug possession penalty will enable counties to significantly reduce needless and costly incarceration in response to drug possession,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Senior Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Advocate for the ACLU of California. “Counties that don’t want to repeat the state’s over-reliance on incarceration must invest their limited resources in the kinds of community-based treatment, rehabilitation, and education programs proven to reduce recidivism, prevent crime, and make our communities safer and healthier.”
Across the country, 13 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Drug crime is not higher in those states. A statewide poll conducted by Tulchin Research late last year showed that an overwhelming majority of Californians support this type of drug sentencing reform, with 75% of Californians favoring investment in prevention and alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders. In addition, 62% of Californians agree that the penalty for possessing a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use should be reduced to a misdemeanor.
“SB 649 provides an important opportunity for a nonviolent drug offender to avoid a felony conviction that saddles him or her with debilitating collateral consequences, including barriers to employment, housing, public benefits, student loans and business licenses,” said Lynne Lyman, California State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Given our criminal justice system’s disproportionate number of drug offense convictions for minorities, despite similar levels of drug use and selling among all races, this bill is poised to have a tremendous positive impact for families and communities of color.”
SB 649 will be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee this spring.
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