Assembly Passes New Drug Sentencing Reforms for California

September 04, 2013

SB 649, Authored by Senator Leno, Reserves the State’s Critical Resources for Those Committing the Most Serious Crimes

SACRAMENTO – Three weeks after U.S. Attorney General Holder announced the nation’s plan to scale back prison sentences for low-level drug crimes, the California Assembly has 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 or felonies (known as a wobbler). The bill, which passed the Assembly with a bipartisan vote, 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.

“We know we can reduce crime by offering low-level offenders rehabilitation and the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities, but we are currently doing the opposite,” said Senator Leno, D-San Francisco. “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 options 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.”

If signed by the governor, SB 649, the Local Control in Sentencing Act, 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 reforms proposed in the Local Control in Sentencing Act complement federal plans that Attorney General Holder announced on August 12. The U.S. Justice Department will phase out mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes, reserving the most severe penalties for those who commit more serious crimes.

SB 649 is co-sponsored by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), Drug Policy Alliance, California State NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), California Public Defenders Association, National Council of La Raza, William C. Velásquez Institute, Californians for Safety and Justice and the Friends Committee on Legislation. It is also supported by Right on Crime, the California Judges Association, and the Conference of California State Bar Associations.

“Based on my 38 years in the criminal justice system, including 5 years presiding over an adult drug court, I’ve seen firsthand how fundamentally unjust it is for simple possession offenses to be charged as straight felonies when many more serious and harmful offenses are prosecuted as misdemeanors,” said the Hon. Harlan Grossman, a retired Superior Court Judge from Contra Costa County. “It’s time to rethink how low-level drug offenses are prosecuted in California. As a judge, I can tell you that there is nothing fair or just about a punishment that does not fit the crime.”

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 does not apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale. The bill returns to the Senate for a concurrence vote before heading to the Governor’s desk.

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