Sacramento – A bill that would reform California’s drug sentencing laws for simple possession and significantly reduce incarceration costs for counties cleared an important legislative hurdle Tuesday.
SB 649, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), was approved by the Senate Public Safety Committee on a 4-2 vote, and moves now to the full Senate for consideration.
“In order to create healthier and safer communities, we need to ensure that low level drug offenders get the rehabilitation they need to successfully re-enter their communities,” said Leno. “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 bill will enable local prosecutors to reduce penalties so counties can reinvest in proven alternatives that would benefit minor offenders and save limited jail space for serious criminals.”
The bill, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of California, the Drug Policy Alliance and others, gives prosecutors the flexibility to charge low-level drug possession for personal use as a misdemeanor instead of a felony. The bill also gives judges discretion to deem a low-level 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 give counties the flexibility to safely alleviate overcrowding in county jails, ease pressure on California’s court system and result in tens of millions of dollars in annual savings for local governments.
“It is imperative that California reduce the needless and costly incarceration for drug possession,” said Kim Horiuchi, criminal justice and drug policy advocate for the ACLU of California. “This bill will help counties break California’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.”
SB 649 will allow counties to reduce jail spending and 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 could save counties about $159 million annually.
Along with the ACLU and Drug Policy Alliance, the bill is sponsored by the California NAACP, the California Public Defenders Association, the William C. Velasquez Institute, Californians for Safety and Justice and the Friends Committee on Legislation.
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 of Californians conducted by Tulchin Research late last year showed that an overwhelming majority of Californians support this type of drug sentencing reform, with 75 percent of state voters 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.
SB 649 will likely be heard in the full Senate in late May.