Sen. Mark Leno’s Bill, SB 649, to Reduce the Penalty for Simple Drug Possession Clears Public Safety Committee

Press Release April 22, 2013
Media Contact

<p>Contact: Lynne Lyman 213-210-1023 or Tommy McDonald 510-229-5215</p>

SACRAMENTO, CA — Today, the Senate Public Safety Committee approved SB649, which will give prosecutorial and judicial discretion to charge possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use as a felony or a misdemeanor as the case warrants, by a 4-2 margin. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) would help reduce prison and jail overcrowding in California.

Now that SB649 has cleared the Public Safety Committee – which today thwarted more than a half-dozen bills attempting to roll back Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2011 Public Safety Realignment and return many offenders to prison – the bill will receive a full floor vote in the Senate.

“At this critical time when the federal three-judge panel is demanding that California do more to reduce our prison overcrowding crisis, SB 649 provides a safe and logical opportunity to reduce the number of people incarcerated for simple drug possession,” said Lynne Lyman, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the bill sponsors.

SB 649, which does not apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale, will help alleviate overcrowding in county jails, ease pressure on California’s court system and result in millions of dollars in annual savings for local governments. The bill is co-sponsored by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), Drug Policy Alliance, NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), California Public Defenders Association, William C. Velasquez Institute, Californians for Safety and Justice and Friends Committee on Legislation.

Across the country, 13 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Drug crime is not higher in those states. A statewide poll conducted by Tulchin Research in 2012 showed that an overwhelming majority of Californians support this type of drug sentencing reform, with 75 percent of Californians favoring investment in prevention and alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders. In addition, 62 percent of Californians agree that the penalty for possessing a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use should be reduced to a misdemeanor.

“Given our criminal justice system’s disproportionate number of drug offense convictions for minorities, despite similar levels of drug use and selling among all races, this bill is poised to have a tremendous positive impact for families and communities of color,” Lyman said. “This bill will support reentry and reduce recidivism. It provides an important opportunity for a nonviolent drug offender to avoid a felony conviction that saddles him or her with debilitating collateral consequences, including barriers to employment, housing, public benefits, student loans and business licenses.”

SB 649 will now go to the floor for a full vote in May .

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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