Sane Drug Laws: How California May Finally Stop Prison Overcrowding

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting a different outcome. California has been doing the same thing with drug users for decades, while wasting billions of dollars and wrecking lives in the process. Not only have we flooded our courts, jails and prisons with felony offenses for low-level drug users, we have created barriers to getting their lives back on track.

Senate Bill 1506, introduced last week by State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, changes that. SB 1506 would reclassify drug possession for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor, reducing the potential sentences for these offenses from a maximum of three years imprisonment to a maximum of one year in county jail. 

This simple, yet bold bill is a sharp break from the policies that helped create California’s prison overcrowding crisis. Prosecuting personal possession of drugs as a felony subjects thousands of low-level offenders to lengthy sentences and lifetime consequences. This bill recognizes that this approach simply does not work. Federal law, the District of Columbia, and 13 other states all penalize personal possession of controlled substances as a misdemeanor. This change will align California with federal law and a growing number of other states.

Felony sentences for personal drug possession disproportionately impact communities of color and far outweigh the harm they seek to address. The current classification of these offenses as felonies places enormous burdens on individuals, families, communities, and the state as a whole. And the burden falls most heavily on low-income people of color. Study after study has found that there are far more white Americans using drugs on any given day, but our courts, jails and prisons are crowded primarily with black and Latino Americans arrested for drugs. 

There is no evidence that lengthy sentences reduce recidivism for drug offenders. In fact, researchers have linked harsher penalties with higher recidivism rates as opposed to alternatives like probation. There is similarly no evidence that harsh penalties for drug possession have any effect on rates of drug use or dependency. Several of the states that treat simple possession as a misdemeanor have lower rates of illicit drug use than California.  

Lengthy felony drug sentences are a significant issue for California's counties, which are currently confronting jail capacity problems. Many counties are contemplating out-of-county transfer of inmates or even new jail construction (which our state cannot afford) to address possible overcrowding. Changing personal drug possession to a misdemeanor will not only reduce the length of time a person will be incarcerated in county jails, it will also give counties more flexibility in responding to these offenses. It will make implementing realignment more affordable for the counties, freeing up money for rehabilitation, drug treatment, and other proven strategies for reducing crime and improving public safety and health.

A felony conviction haunts someone for the rest of his or her life. Such convictions exact a devastating cost beyond the formal sentence, many lasting a lifetime, including barriers to employment, housing, education, and public benefits needed to successfully reintegrate into the community. In other words, people convicted of felonies have a difficult time finding jobs or places to live. Tens of thousands of people have already found themselves branded as “felon” simply because of minor drug offenses, which by definition are nonviolent and non-serious. Treating such minor offenses as felonies does not serve the interests of justice and does not serve the interest of the people of this state. Reducing felony drug possession to a misdemeanor will remove barriers to reentry that people with prior felony convictions now face, allowing thousands of Californians to fully contribute to family and community life through, among other things, employment and taxes.

Senator Leno’s bill is publicly supported. According to a 2011 Lake Research survey, 72 percent of voters from all regions, ethnic groups and political affiliations support reducing the penalties for personal drug possession. This bill would not only align California law with the will of the people, it is a common-sense measure and a recognition that it is time to turn away from policies that are unjust, unreasonably expensive and ineffective. With this simple solution to our overcrowded prisons and jails, California has every reason to embrace SB 1506.

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