Drug Sentencing Reform Bill Passes CA Assembly
(CN) - California counties could save $169 million a year under a new law that gives prosecutors flexibility to charge low-level, non-violent drug offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies.
S.B. 649, authored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, also gives judges discretion to deem a nonviolent drug possession offense to be either a misdemeanor or felony based on the nature of the offense and the defendant's record.
The state assembly passed the bill Wednesday, nearly a month after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a federal plan to stop seeking mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug crimes.
"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. S.B. 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 bill returns to the Senate for a concurrence vote before heading to Gov. Jerry Brown.
The Legislative Analyst's Office reportedly estimates that the law would save counties as much as $159 million a year by reducing jail spending and allowing local governments to dictate resources for probation, drug treatment and mental health services.
Thirteen states, the District of Columbia and the federal government currently consider drug possession a misdemeanor.
The bill does not apply to anyone involved in selling, making or possessing drugs for sale.
"Based on my 35 years in the criminal justice system, including five 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," retired Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Harlan Grossman said in a statement. "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."
The bill is co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of California, National Council of La Raza, California State NAACP, California Public Defenders Association, Californians for Safety and Justice, Drug Policy Alliance, William C. Velásquez Institute and Friends Committee on Legislation.
Right on Crime, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the California Judges Association, the Conference of California State Bar Associations and the California Society of Addiction Medicine also support the bill.