By Huge Margins, Voters Want Drug Penalties Reduced

A brand new poll this week finds that a whopping 72% of California voters support reducing the penalty for possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor, including a solid majority who support this reform strongly. The March 21-24 survey of 800 California general election voters was conducted by Lake Research Partners and commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU of Northern California and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Poll results and analysis are available online.

At a time when California is slashing funding for education and health care while billions in incarceration spending remain untouched, this poll offers important proof that Californians believe subjecting people to lengthy jail or prison terms for possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use is both wrong and costly. Changing the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor would cut government costs by hundreds of millions of dollars a year – $4.5 billion over ten years – and free up resources for other much-needed services, including treatment and prevention, which are cheaper and more effective.

Support for reducing drug possession penalties crosses all the partisan, regional, and demographic lines that normally divide California voters. Solid majorities of Democrats (79%), Independents (72%), and Republicans (66%) from every corner of the state overwhelmingly agree that it’s time for a new approach. We need to stop wasting precious tax dollars on unnecessary, expensive jail and prison sentences.

The consensus is so broad and so strong, that politicians stand in the way of this sentencing reform at their own risk. A 41% plurality of those surveyed say they’d be more likely to support a candidate who reduced the penalty to a misdemeanor, compared to just 15% who say they’d be less likely.

The recent poll found that 51% of California voters believe that people caught with a small amount of drugs for personal use should spend fewer than 3 months (27%) or no time at all (24%) in jail. The current penalty in California for possession of heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine is up to 3 years behind bars. Last week Governor Brown signed AB 109, a plan that would keep most people convicted of personal drug possession at the county level. (The future of the plan is uncertain, since it is contingent on funding that does not appear to be forthcoming.) But there are two major flaws with that proposal. First, it would still allow people to be locked up in jails for as long as 3 years for personal drug possession. That’s way out of line with what voters think – and it doesn’t maximize savings. The second major flaw with the governor’s plan is that it leaves the penalty a felony, which nearly three-quarters of California voters believe is too severe for the crime.

According to this new poll, Californians aren’t just interested in saving money; they’re also interested in seeing people contribute to their families and communities. California voters want to see that people are not burdened with a life-long felony record for drug possession that makes it tough to find a job or support a family. Current penalties work against individual, family and community wellbeing and public safety.

The results are in and California voters’ wishes are clear. We need to stop wasting precious tax dollars on unnecessary, expensive jail and prison sentences. We need to bring back balance in California – not just to our budget but also to the scales of justice. That means that the punishment ought to fit the crime. That means we don’t send people away for lengthy jail or prison terms simply for possessing a small amount of drugs. Balancing our priorities means we protect funding for education, health care, and safety, and this new poll points to the way we can do that. 

We are calling on the state legislature to pass a bill to reduce low-level drug possession to a misdemeanor and save hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the state corrections budget. This new poll demonstrates that meaningful sentencing reform is possible in California. It demonstrates to our elected officials that voters will not see them as “soft on crime” if they take responsible, smart steps to reform sentencing and save money.

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