California Deals Major Blow To Drug-Sentencing Reform


Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed a bill on Saturday to reduce the penalty for offenders caught for simple drug possession.

Senate Bill 649 would have given judges and prosecutors the option of making drug possession charges misdemeanors instead of felonies. If convicted, instead of prison or jail, those individuals would have been sent to substance-abuse treatment centers, and sentenced to probation or ordered to perform community service.

The measure, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), passed both legislative houses, and many were hopeful it would help reduce California’s severely overcrowded prison system.

“The governor let down the people of California, the majority of whom support going even farther than this bill would have gone,” said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the bill’s sponsors. “The vast majority of voters agree with the experts — locking up drug users is stupid, unproductive, cruel and expensive.”

In California’s judicial system, methamphetamine, LSD and certain other drugs are known as “wobblers,” meaning that possession of those substances can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Leno’s bill would have extended this “wobbler” approach to possession of heroin, cocaine and most other drugs, which currently can only be charged as felonies.

A coalition of law enforcement officials and prosecutors opposed Leno’s bill, claiming it would have compromised public safety.

Supporters of the measure, on the other hand, argued it would reduce recidivism by eliminating barriers to housing, education and employment resulting from a felony record.

Polling shows that Californians

enders-poll-finds/“ target=”_hplink”>broadly support reducing sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders, like those caught with small amounts of illegal drugs.

In his veto statement, Brown wrote that the bill was premature because the state is about “to examine in detail California’s criminal justice system, including the current sentencing structure.”

“We will do so with the full participation of all necessary parties, including law enforcement, courts and treatment providers,” he wrote. “That will be the appropriate time to evaluate our existing drug laws.”

In 2009, a panel of federal judges ruled that severe overcrowding in California’s prisons amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment” and ordered the state to address the problem. Three federal judges recently granted Brown a 30-day extension to come up with a plan for reducing the prison population.

Leno said his bill would have helped Brown meet the federal court order. “Brown’s veto message was a bit of a fig leaf,” Leno said to HuffPost. “He said he’s vetoing because he wants broader reform, but there are no reforms on his desk. This is a missed opportunity.”

Some supporters of Leno’s bill accused Brown of caving to pressure from law enforcement lobbyists. Lyman noted that, in response to overcrowding, Brown has proposed buying extra beds in private prisons, “which is a win for law enforcement as they’ll be hired to staff the private prisons,” she said.

Leno and Lyman said they hope to influence Brown in his negotiations with federal judges. If they don’t succeed, they said they expect the matter to be decided by voters as a ballot proposition.

Brown’s rejection of Leno’s bill comes a couple of months after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a plan to scale back federal prison sentences for low-level drug crimes, citing “shameful” racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Holder praised recent drug sentencing reduction in Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Hawaii as effective and attracting bipartisan support.

In the 13 states where simple drug possession is charged as a misdemeanor, drug offenders are more likely to get treatment and slightly less likely to use illegal drugs, according to an analysis of 2010 U.S. Justice Department data by the Drug Policy Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union.