By Phillip Smith
A bill that would allow some drug possession cases to be charged as misdemeanors instead of felonies passed the state Assembly Wednesday. The bill has already passed the Senate, but most go back there for a final concurrence vote before heading to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D).
Senate Bill 649, filed by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) would give local judges and prosecutors discretion on charging simple possession cases as felonies or misdemeanors. California sees about 10,000 drug possession cases each year. That figure does not include marijuana, which was decriminalized under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
Passage of the bill would help reduce prison and jail overcrowding in California and potentially even provide savings to the financially-strapped courts because felony charges require setting a preliminary hearing, whereas misdemeanor offenses do not.
"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 after the Assembly vote. "We give nonviolent 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. 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."
"Our system is broken," said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the bill sponsors. "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 reintegrate into their families and communities."
Leno's bill comes as California struggles to comply with a federal mandate to reduce prison overcrowding. Gov. Brown and Assembly Democrats have concocted a plan to use a private prison facility staffed with unionized state prison guards, but that plan is running into opposition among Democrats in the Senate, who are seeking instead to increase funding to counties that have incurred higher costs because of Brown's incarceration realignment plan, which shifts some prison inmates to county jails.
Even after realignment, there are still more than 4,100 people serving California prison time for simple drug possession. State taxpayers are paying $207 million a year to keep them there.
"Based on my 38 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," said the Hon. Harlan Grossman, a retired Superior Court Judge from Contra Costa County. "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."
If Gov. Brown signs the bill into law, California will be on the same path as 13 other states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government as jurisdictions that treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Those states do not demonstrate higher levels of drug use or drug crime than states that have not defelonized drug possession.