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Assembly passes drug sentencing reform bill

By Josh Richman
Wednesday, September 4th, 2013 at 2:50 pm in Assembly, California State Senate, Mark Leno, Public safety.

The Assembly approved a bill Wednesday that would reform California’s sentencing laws for simple drug possession, a move supporters say would reduce costly jail populations, get more people into rehab and let authorities focus on more serious crimes.

SB 649 by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would give county prosecutors flexibility to charge low-level, nonviolent drug crimes either as misdemeanors or felonies – making them what’s known as “wobblers.” It also would give 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.

This wouldn’t apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale. SB 649 now returns to the Senate for a concurrence vote before heading for Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Mark Leno“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,” Leno said in a news release Wednesday.

“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,” he said. “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.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates reduced penalties for drug possession will save counties about $159 million per year. Leno notes that 13 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government treat drug possession as a misdemeanor, but don’t have higher drug-crime rates.

Though introduced earlier, the bill moves California in the same direction as the new federal policy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last month in San Francisco: Federal prosecutors will stop seeking longer mandatory sentences for many nonviolent drug offenders, part of a broad new effort to focus on violent crimes and national security while reducing the nation’s gigantic prison population.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli – senior criminal justice and drug policy advocate for the ACLU of California, which is among the bill’s sponsors – said Wednesday that SB 649 “is just the kind of common sense solution to California’s incarceration crisis that voters have been demanding, and the legislature deserves credit for choosing to be smart on crime.”

“Felony sentences don’t reduce drug use and don’t persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release – three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities,” said Lynne Lyman, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, another sponsor of the bill. “I was heartened to see some Assembly Republicans standing in favor, or at least not opposed, to this common sense solution.”

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