SB 649: Drug Reform for Healthy & Safe Communities

If a lengthy jail sentence kept people from becoming addicted, we wouldn’t have any drug problems. But California knows from experience that lengthy jail sentences for possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use just makes things worse – wasted lives, overcrowded jails, and devastating budget deficits.  Fortunately, California may be about to turn the corner toward commonsense reform.

The California State Legislature is just one step away from sending a bill to the governor’s desk that would revise the penalty for drug possession for personal use after the Assembly Committee on Public safety voted 4-2 to advance a bill by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that would allow personal drug possession to be charged as a misdemeanor at the discretion of the local prosecutor. S.B. 649 now moves to the full Assembly for consideration, where a vote is expected in late summer or early fall.

This modest reform will have major implications for California. 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.

As the LA Times put it in their recent endorsement of S.B. 649, “Counties have the opportunity and now the incentive to offer treatment and alternative monitoring, and inmates and outpatients alike are treated closer to the neighborhoods to which they will (one way or another) soon return.”

According to a 2012 analysis by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, charging personal drug possession as a misdemeanor would save California counties as much as $159 million annually statewide. Counties could reallocate savings to drug treatment, education, job training, housing and other proven recidivism-reduction programs.

Along with the ACLU of California, the bill is sponsored by Drug Policy Alliance, the National Council of La Raza, 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.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli is a Senior Policy Advocate at the ACLU of California. Follow @margdoosamm on Twitter.

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