California Drug Reform Law Could Save Millions for the State

Low-level non-violent drug offenses that were once considered felonies may now be dropped down to a misdemeanor charge. A felony offense has a tremendous impact on the individual, reducing chances of employment, housing and student loans. The law would deliver consequence but reduce the damage caused by a felony conviction on an offenders official record.
WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. - Feb. 23, 2014 - PRLog -- A new bill introduced by California State Senator Mark Leno would provide county prosecutors with more flexibility in whether to charge people accused of non-violent drug possession offenses with misdemeanors, instead of a felony.  The bill could free up to $200 million yearly for addiction rehab programs.

Leno stated during a press conference “If our common goal is to have safer, healthier communities with lower crime rates and less recidivism, this is the way to go.”  Under California’s yearlong realignment program, in an effort to deal with the prison overcrowding, most low level offenders now serve their time in a county jail.

The county jails are having trouble dealing with the new population increase, which stretches both time and budgets and produces significant negative side effects. By providing local prosecutors with the ability to have more drug offenses charged as a misdemeanor, the bill’s backers argue that it could relieve some of the pressure realignment has placed on sheriff’s departments all across California.

California’s Moscone Act, which was passed in 1976, moved marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.  However, the sentence for possession of other drugs remains up in the air.  Cocaine or heroin possession is always charged as a felony, whereas methamphetamine can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor, depending on which way the prosecutor chooses to lean.

Senator Leno introduced a similar bill in 2012, but it was defeated by the opposition of law enforcement groups who dragged their feet at the measures across the board redefining of low-level drug possession.   Such opposition was the primary reason Leno’s new bill aims to give local officials the discretion in the way they charge those types of offenses.

Cory Salzillo, the legislative director of the California District Attorneys Association, represents California’s 50 elected D.A.’s, opposed Leno’s bill, but it has yet to release an official position on the new one.

The seriousness of receiving a felony drug charge and the lifetime of consequences it brings is precisely what the bill’s supporters are hoping to avoid.  Low-level, non-violent drug offenses fall disproportionately on young, African-American and Hispanic communities.  Once a person has a felony on their record, they are not able to live in government housing, receive student loans and oftentimes the individual will have difficulty in securing employment within the private sector.

The unemployment rate for convicted felons can be as high as 70%, which is not beneficial to anyone.  A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that California had the largest number of incarcerated youth of any state in America.

The key to rehabilitating low-level drug offenders is to provide better resources in terms of treatment and reducing the charges from felonies to misdemeanors.  The passing of this bill can free up monies to better the lives of many and can turn the state of California around.

Matthew Steiner

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