California Drug Sentencing Reform Bill Goes to Governor

As federal officials pledge to ease their vigorous prosecutions of those arrested for marijuana crimes, California’s legislators have come together to pass a bill that eases drug sentencing measures throughout the state.
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S.B. 649 provides prosecutors with greater flexibility to charge low-level, non-violent drug offenders with misdemeanors as opposed to felonies. Additionally, judges are also granted discretion to rule that certain non-violent drug offenses are to be considered misdemeanors rather than felonies, weighing the severity of the offense as well as the defendant’s prior criminal record.

The bill came about a month after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a plan to reduce the pursuit of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes at the federal level. The measure was authored by Sent. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and was given the green light by the state assembly earlier this month. Following a final concurrence from the Senate, the measure awaits Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature, which it is expected to receive.

Leno was quoted as saying that we have seen time and again that by offering low-level drug offenders rehabilitation and opportunities to successfully re-enter society, we can ultimately reduce crime and save hundreds of millions of dollars annually. And yet, for years we have been doing virtually the opposite. California courts give non-violent drug offenders extended prison sentences, which they serve alongside hardened criminals. They are offered no treatment options while they’re locked up and then they are left as convicted felons with scant few job, educational or housing prospects.

In these cases, it should surprise no one that drug offenders return again and again to the sale and abuse of drugs.

Leno and other reform advocates say a new approach is necessary if we hope for different outcomes.

This measure is expected to save the state an estimated $170 million to $207 million annually by significantly reducing jail and prison overcrowding. It may also serve a significant savings to cash-strapped courts, as felony cases are much more labor intensive, requiring more hearings and the output of extensive legal resources.

But for all the cost associated with felony prosecution of drug cases, felony convictions and sentences don’t reduce drug crimes. They don’t persuade people to receive treatment. They don’t heal families or create other avenues of opportunity.

That the state is struggling to comply with a federal mandate ordering a significant reduction of the prison population in order to reduce overcrowding is just one more reason why the measure makes sense.

Retired Speior Court Judge Harlan Grossman was quoted as saying that in his nearly four decade career, the last five years of which were spent presiding over adult drug court, current state laws regarding simple drug possession are “fundamentally unjust,” and too often, the punishment far exceeds the scope of the crime.

The state handles approximately 10,000 drug possession cases each year. This figure does not include marijuana possession offenses, which were decriminalized under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Passage of S.B. 649 would make California the 13th state to make possession a misdemeanor. Of those states that have previously approved such measures, none have higher rates of drug use or crime than those who still consider drug possession a felony.

The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, collectives, patients and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 714-937-2050.

Additional Resources:
Drug Sentencing Reform Bill Passes CA Assembly, Sept. 5, 2013, By Nick Divito, Courthouse News Service

More Blog Entries:
Federal Marijuana Crackdowns Eased by Holder’s Latest Directive? Aug. 18, 2013, Los Angeles Medical Marijuana Lawyer Blog