California on Path to Drug Sentencing Reform

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Assembly has passed a drug reform bill that would give counties more control in how to prosecute low-level nonviolent drug offenders. Authored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-san Francisco, Senate Bill 649 would allow county prosecutors to charge drug possession offenders with a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

“We know we can reduce crime by offering low-level offenders rehabilitation and the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities,” Leno said in a statement. “But we are currently doing 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 options to receive an education.

According to Leno, by allowing local government the flexibility to choose reduced drug penalties, those counties can then independently decide the best way to reinvest in alternatives to incarceration and reserve limited jail space for more serious offenders. If passed, the bill would allow counties to dedicate more funding to probation, drug treatment programs and mental health services rather than jail spending. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that such moves would save counties up to $159 million each year.

Currently 13 states, including the District of Columbia as well as the federal government, charge drug possession as a misdemeanor. The bill cosponsored by such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California, the California Judges Association, the National Council of La Raza and the California Public Defenders Association among others.

“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,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior criminal justice and drug policy advocate for the ACLU of California. “By signing this bill into law, Gov. Brown could give counties the flexibility they need to safely reduce their jail populations while freeing up resources for things like community-based treatment, rehabilitation and job training that are proven to prevent crime and create safe communities.”

The new bill would not impact the sentencing of offenders involved in the manufacturing or distribution of illegal drugs. The bill is now headed to the state senate.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that the justice department would place more emphasis on drug sentencing reform in the nation.