Blog Post

California Gov. Jerry Brown Carries the Torch for the War on Drugs

Lynne Lyman

Over the long weekend, California Gov. Jerry Brown chose to continue the 40 year old failed war on drugs.

Brown rejected the national ‘smart on crime’ trend and pragmatic public policy by vetoing SB649, which aimed to give judges and district attorneys the discretion to charge possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use as a felony or a misdemeanor as the case warrants.

Brown chose to make no advance towards the federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding. The governor chose to defy supermajority public opinion on how California should deal with nonviolent drug offenders.

Drug use is a health issue, not a criminal justice one. And the last thing someone struggling with problematic drug use needs is a lifelong felony record. Felony sentences don’t reduce drug use and don’t persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release – three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities. States that currently charge drug use as a misdemeanor actually show higher rates of drug treatment use.

Locking up people for simple drug possession comes at a tremendous cost to the taxpayers, between $40,000 and $52,000/year to be precise, depending on whether they serve their time in a prison bed or a county jail.

According to state data, there are 10,000 convictions for possession of heroin and cocaine for personal use each year in California. The majority of these 10,000 sentences are to felony probation. SB649, authored by state Sen. Mark Leno and supported in the legislature by some Republicans, as well as most Democrats would have helped reduce prison and jail overcrowding in California and provided savings to the financially-strapped courts because felony charges require setting a preliminary hearing, whereas misdemeanor offenses do not.

Brown let down the people of California, the majority of whom support going even farther than this bill would have gone. While the law enforcement lobby gained a huge win with this veto, the public opinion that strongly favors this type of drug sentencing reform was dismissed.

A statewide 2012 poll showed 75 percent of Californians favoring investment in prevention and alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders, with 62 percent agreeing that the penalty for possessing a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use should be reduced to a misdemeanor. Leno’s bill provided a safe and logical opportunity to reduce the number of people incarcerated for simple drug possession.

Two months after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the nation’s plan to scale back federal prison sentences for low-level drug crimes, California is still struggling for consensus on how to comply with a federal mandate to reduce prison overcrowding, much of which has been driven by overly harsh drug sentencing.

In fact, today the U.S Supreme Court rejected Brown's appeal in the state's prison overcrowding case, leaving California under federal court order to reduce its prison population by nearly 8,000 inmates by Jan. 27, 2014.

Not only would SB649 have helped the governor meet the federal court order, it would have brought California closer to the standard of 13 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government, which already treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Drug crime is not higher in those states.

Instead, California remains one of worst in the country with harsh drug sentencing standards and overcrowded prisons and jails.

Lynne Lyman is the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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