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California State Capitol Building

Photo by Jimmy Wayne | flickr creative commons

This year, the California state legislature has taken a bold step to reform drug sentencing for individuals who posses small quantities of a controlled substance for personal use. Senate Bill 649, authored by State Senator Mark Leno, would make possession of these drugs a wobbler” meaning under prosecutorial and judicial discretion it could be charged either as a felony or misdemeanor. A misdemeanor charge would result in a maximum commitment of one year in a county jail, as opposed to a felony conviction that could result in imprisonment for 16 months to three years.

Earlier this month, the Assembly passed the bill 41 – 31 and the Senate approved it 23 – 13. All that remains is for Governor Brown to sign the bill into law. Below are four reasons the Governor should do so immediately:

1. Currently, thousands of individuals are unnecessarily sentenced to state prison to state prison for drug possession.

As of December 31, 2012, there were 4,114 individuals in California’s prisons for drug possession. This amounts to 3.1 percent of the total prison population. Meanwhile, the state remains under Supreme Court directive to decrease its overall prison population by approximately 10,000 people by December 312013.

2. Existing drug enforcement policies have a disproportionate impact on people of color.

A CJCJ analysis of San Francisco County found disproportionate arrest rates for African Americans for drug felonies. An analysis by the Burns Institute draws parallel phenomena for youth of color nationally, noting: ” African American youth are arrested for drug offenses at about twice the rate of Whites and represent nearly half (48%) of all the youth incarcerated for a drug offense in the juvenile justice system.”

3. Californians support reforming these drug laws.

A 2012 Tulchin Research Poll found that 70 percent of statewide voters support reducing the penalties for possession of small quantities of illicit narcotics. The same poll measured 87 percent of respondents approved of allowing individuals to avoid incarceration, should they successfully complete drug treatment.

4. The sentencing reform proposed by SB 649 is in line with a growing trend nationally.

SB 649 joins with Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement in August that the federal government will not charge nonviolent individuals, suspected of drug crimes, with crimes that bring an overly punitive mandatory sentence. Other states, such as Texas, have similarly adopted sentencing reform for low-level possession.

SB 649 should be understood as a long-term solution that gives California’s judges and prosecutors the choice to offer individuals a reduced sentence, when appropriate, for drug possession. State and local resources would be effectively utilized to provide treatment services targeting individuals with substance abuse issues. SB 649 is a necessary and fair reform of the state’s strident approach to drug rehabilitation, which has historically proven detrimental to public safety.