Senate Passes New Drug Sentencing Reforms for California

May 02, 2013

SB 649, Authored by Senator Leno, Gives Prosecutors Flexibilityto Charge Low-Level, Non-Violent Drug Offenses as Misdemeanors

SACRAMENTO – The Senate today passed legislation authored by Senator Mark Leno 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 (known as a wobbler) after consideration of the offense and the defendant’s record. SB 649, the Local Control in Sentencing Act, does not apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale, and will result in millions of dollars in annual savings for local governments, help alleviate overcrowding in county jails, ease pressure on California’s court system and keep communities safer.

“One of the best ways to promote lower crime rates is to provide low-level offenders with the rehabilitation they need to successfully reenter their communities,” said Senator Leno, D-San Francisco. “However, our current laws do just the opposite. We give non-violent 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 opportunities 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.”

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.

“We commend the Senate for approving this bill at a time when lasting, sustainable and common sense solutions to California’s ongoing incarceration crisis are so needed,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior criminal justice and drug policy advocate for the ACLU of California. “This bill will help counties break the state’s addiction to incarceration by enabling them to invest their limited resources in the kinds of community-based treatment, rehabilitation and education programs proven to reduce recidivism, prevent crime and increase public safety.”

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.

“With our prisons and jails overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders – primarily people of color and women, everything should be on the table,” said Lynne Lyman, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “SB 649 is a sensible reform that will give counties the flexibility they need to implement Realignment and reduce recidivism.”

SB 649 will be heard next in the Assembly.

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