Sacramento – In his revised 2011-12 state budget, Governor Brown today recommitted to his criminal justice realignment plan, but left out safe and simple sentencing reforms that would ensure that the plan is effective and affordable. The governor's plan keeps people convicted of minor felonies at the county level instead of in state prison. Advocates highlighted, however, that a key part of the solution lies in changing minor offenses from felonies to misdemeanors so that the punishment and its associated taxpayer cost fits the crime.
Following the release of the revised budget, the ACLU of California, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights urged Sacramento to implement sentencing reform to free up funds for schools, health care and social services as well as crime prevention services. The groups had asked Governor Brown to include two reforms that alone would save the state hundreds of millions annually while keeping communities safe: making possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use a misdemeanor instead of a felony and making low-level, non-violent property offenses – like vandalism or writing a bad check – a misdemeanor.
"Reserving expensive state prison beds for people convicted of serious offenses is an important step in the right direction," said Theshia Naidoo, staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. "But it's not enough to simply change where people are locked up. Sacramento needs to end excessive incarceration for petty offenses to reduce costs and to preserve funding for crime prevention, including drug treatment."
"California spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year locking people up for minor offenses when they pose no threat to public safety," said Allen Hopper, an attorney with the ACLU of California. "To help balance the budget, we need to balance our priorities. We can save money and keep our communities safe by reserving felony sentences for serious crimes."
According to a recent Lake Research poll, a whopping 72% of California voters support reducing the penalty for possession of a small amount of illegal drugs to a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of one year behind bars. Commissioned by the ACLU of Northern California, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the March survey of 800 general election voters found that solid majorities of Democrats (79%), Independents (72%), and Republicans (66%) from every part of the state overwhelmingly support the change. In fact, 41% of people surveyed say they would be more likely to support a candidate who reduced the penalty, compared to just 15% who say they'd be less likely. Poll results and analysis are online.
"Any California corrections reform must include sentencing reform," said Kris Lev-Twombly, director of programs at the Ella Baker Center. "A felony conviction is a life-long sentence that should not be applied to low-level offenses. No matter how old the conviction, people with a felony on their record will face significantly diminished employment opportunities and much lower lifetime earnings. They may also be prohibited from accessing student loans and public assistance. This works against individual, family and community wellbeing and public safety."