With an eye towards ending punitive drug policies that have made the United States the world’s largest incarcerator and cost taxpayers billions of dollars a year, Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has introduced legislation to reduce the penalty for Californians who possess small amounts of drugs for their own personal use.

The bill, SB 1506, changes the penalty for the simple possession of drugs under state law from a felony, which is punishable by up to three years behind bars, to a misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to one year behind bars.

The independent, nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that SB 1506 will save counties about $159 million annually, in addition to yearly savings for the state totaling $64.4 million. Savings will total $1 billion in five years.

SB 1506 will:

  • Make the criminal justice system fairer for everyone, especially African Americans and Latinos, who are arrested and sentenced disproportionately for low level drug offenses;
  • Help alleviate overcrowding in state prisons and county jails and save the state millions of dollars annually; and
  • Free up money for rehabilitation, drug treatment and solving serious crimes

Thirteen other states, the District of Columbia and the federal government already punish this offense as a misdemeanor. Those areas have slightly lower crime rates than felony states and slightly higher rates of people entering treatment.

Co-sponsored by the ACLU of California, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, Drug Policy Alliance, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the California NAACP, and William C. Velásquez Institute, SB 1506 is an excellent step toward fixing our broken criminal justice system and making realignment work better by reserving prison and jail space for more serious offenses. The legislation will significantly reduce prison and jail spending. It will allow local and state government to dedicate resources to probation, drug treatment and mental health services, which have proven most effective in reducing crime.