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) on Friday introduced legislation to reduce the penalty for Californians who possess small amounts of drugs for their own personal use. The bill, SB 1506, co-sponsored by the ACLU of California, Drug Policy Alliance, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the California NAACP, 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 reform would help alleviate overcrowding in state prisons and county jails and save the state millions of dollars annually.
“Over the years we have learned that long prison sentences do little to deter or limit personal drug use,” said Senator Leno, D-San Francisco. “In fact, time behind bars and felony records often have horrible consequences for people trying to overcome addiction because they are unlikely to receive drug treatment in prison and have few job prospects and educational opportunities when they leave. This legislation will help implement public safety realignment and protect our communities by reserving prison and jail space for more serious offenders.”
SB 1506 will significantly and safely reduce prison and jail populations, making room for people convicted of more serious offenses. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates reducing penalties for drug possession will save counties about $159 million annually, in addition to yearly savings for the state totaling $64.4 million.
“The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure we can no longer afford,” said Allen Hopper, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director at the ACLU of California. “California voters agree the punishment should fit the crime, and a felony for simple possession is ridiculous. Those who are addicted to drugs need treatment, not a jail cell and a felony conviction with severe and life-long consequences, like reduced access to job opportunities, student loans, and small business loans.”
A statewide poll conducted by Lake Research Partners last year showed that most Californians – across party lines and geography – do not approve of lengthy prison sentences for minor drug possession. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of California voters strongly support the penalty reform proposed in SB 1506, including 79% of Democrats, 72% of Independents, and 66% of Republicans.
“This front-end sentencing reform is a critical step toward fixing our broken criminal justice system and making realignment work better in our communities,” said Clarissa Woo Hermosillo, Director of Policy Advocacy with the ACLU of Southern California. “By changing this offense from a felony to misdemeanor, we will be taking a huge burden off of county jails, promoting access to effective drug treatment, and saving millions of dollars annually for our schools, health and human services, and local law enforcement.”
Across the country, 13 states and the District of Columbia already make drug possession a misdemeanor. Many of these states, including New York and Delaware, in turn have the nation’s highest admission rates for drug treatment programs.