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SB 649’s “Wobbler” Option Creates Flexibility for Certain Drug Offenders

cocaine as one of new

Cocaine as one of new "wobbler" drugs

JLM Photography l flickr creative commons

SB 649, authored by State Senator Mark Leno, pursues a similar approach to Realignment by recognizing that people convicted of simple drug possession, as well as the overall community, will not benefit from austere penalties. Rather, these incarcerated persons would benefit greatly from sentences that expand access to rehabilitation, which can be better provided through this bill.

SB 649 brings the penalties for criminal handling of more addictive drugs, such as cocaine, into line with drugs such as methamphetamine, where simple possession can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Individuals with misdemeanor convictions will spend their time in county jail rather than state prison, allowing them easier access to treatment and services that can help address the root causes of their offense.

The term “addict” recognizes that these individuals are dependent on the drugs they possess and consume. More than half of the 2.3 million inmates in the U.S. have a history of substance abuse and addiction. Addiction is a disease and, therefore, must be treated to promote long term positive outcomes for this population. Incarcerating and isolating these individuals in state prisons, where there is minimal treatment for addicts, does not address the cause of their criminal behavior, and can result in higher recidivism rates and, ultimately, diminish public health and safety. Even when these incarcerated persons are released on parole, without proper treatment and services, they consequently relapse given their addiction. A NIDA report from last year consisted of an intriguing statistic: Heroin addicts who received no treatment while incarcerated were seven times as likely as treated inmates to become re-addicted, and three times as likely to end up in prison again.

SB 649 presents a smart approach to sentencing reform. The bill allows judicial and prosecutorial discretion but ultimately creates an incentive to keep individuals convicted of simple drug possession locally. A June 2013 editorial by the Los Angeles Times concluded that through SB 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.”

There has been a greater chance of successful rehabilitation for those individuals who were housed and treated closer to their homes and families, in alternatives such as drug courts, than those isolated in state prisons, proving, yet again, that incarceration is not a beneficial solution for a lot of these justice-involved individuals. County-level approaches are more personal with a much higher level of supervision and participant accountability while state drug programs treat a much larger number of individuals. This makes a personal model more challenging for state programs. Plus, a 2012 analysis by the Legislative Analyst’s Office found that charging personal drug possession as a misdemeanor would save California counties as much as $159 million annually statewide, which could be used towards alternative treatment programs for these offenders.

Ultimately, SB 649 has built upon Realignment's progress in creating yet another method in which counties can better serve certain justice-involved individuals. Within this particular bill, district attorneys are offered the flexibility to provide those who have been convicted of simple drug possession with the option of engaging in services for their addiction.

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) supports this bill in its approach to create alternative solutions to state incarceration. CJCJ recognizes that SB 649 gives district attorneys the opportunity to give counties more control of their resources, which could prove to be of greater efficacy if used for drug treatment, education programs, and community services. These resources could ultimately reduce recidivism and promote long-term public health and safety without over-reliance on incarceration.

Keywords: drug policy, local policy, SB 649, Shanthi Rajagopalan

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy

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