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CA Drug Sentencing Reform Law Passes General Assembly

At the height of the war on drugs, while Nancy Reagan was leading the charge to "Just Say No", the federal government and most states passed harsh legislation to punish drug offenders. It crowded our prisons, but hasn't put a dent in the fight against illegal narcotics. Some of the laws were blatantly racist, and have already been removed. Other reforms are pending, with the notable example of reforms in Attorney General Eric Holder's strongly symbolic speech in San Francisco.

Three weeks after Holder announced the nation's plan to scale back prison sentences for low-level drug crimes, the California Assembly passed legislation authored by Senator Mark Leno that reforms California's drug sentencing laws for simple possession. SB 649 allows counties to significantly reduce incarceration costs by giving prosecutors the flexibility to charge low-level, non-violent drug offenses as misdemeanors or felonies (known as a wobbler). The bill, which passed the Assembly with a bipartisan vote, also gives judges discretion to deem a non-violent drug possession offense to be either a misdemeanor or felony after consideration of the offense and the defendant's record.

"We know we can reduce crime by offering low-level offenders rehabilitation and the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities, but we are currently doing the opposite," said Senator Leno, D-San Francisco. "We give non-violent drug offenders long terms, offer them no treatment while they're incarcerated, and then release them back into the community with few job prospects or options to receive an education. SB 649 gives local governments the flexibility to choose reduced penalties so that they can reinvest in proven alternatives that benefit minor offenders and reserve limited jail space for serious criminals."

If signed by the governor, SB 649, the Local Control in Sentencing Act, will significantly reduce jail spending and allow local governments to dedicate resources to probation, drug treatment and mental health services that have proven most effective in reducing crime. It will also help law enforcement rededicate resources to more serious offenders. The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates reducing penalties for drug possession will save counties about $159 million annually.

This legislation is a good, common sense start to drug sentencing reform. It gives both prosecutors and judges some discretion over sentencing, and allows them context for those decisions. When you add in the prison overcrowding crisis, some common sense is desperately needed.

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