Update: On May 1st, S.B 649, the Local Control in Sentencing Act, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), was approved by the Senate in a 23-14 vote, and moves now to the state Assembly for consideration. Read the entire release here________________________________________________________________

When it comes to drugs, we should focus on the goals we agree on: protecting our kids, protecting public safety and preventing and treating drug abuse and addiction.

That’s why the ACLU of California is supporting legislation authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) to reform California’s harsh drug possession penalties, so that we can help set people up for success rather than failure in overcoming a drug problem and returning to the community.

Senator Leno’s proposal (called Senate Bill 649) will allow personal drug possession to be charged as a misdemeanor, but will give the prosecuting attorney the discretion to charge drug possession as a felony. This is already an option in California for possession of methamphetamine for personal use. And 13 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government already treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Crime rates are not higher in those states.

Creating an option to charge low-level drug possession as a misdemeanor rather than a felony will allow counties to reduce needless and costly incarceration in response to drug possession, freeing up money for programs proven to reduce recidivism, including drug treatment.

According to a 2011 analysis by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, charging personal drug possession as a misdemeanor would save California counties $159 million annually statewide and well over half a billion dollars over five years. Counties could reallocate the savings to drug treatment, education, job training, housing and other proven recidivism-reduction programs.

A misdemeanor conviction (rather than a felony one) can itself help remove barriers to reentry, thereby reducing recidivism and preventing future crime and victims. A felony drug conviction inhibits people from getting accessing the kinds of things – like housing, employment, student loans, business licenses and even public services – that are so critical to an individual’s success in the community. SB 649 provides an important opportunity to avoid a felony drug conviction and the debilitating and life-long collateral consequences that come along with it.

Along with the ACLU, the bill is sponsored by Drug Policy Alliance, the California NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the California Public Defenders Association, the William C. Velasquez Institute, Californians for Safety and Justice and the Friends Committee on Legislation-CA.