Proposed Reform of Drug Possession Law in California Would Benefit Latino Community

California_drugsThere is a legislative battle under way in California over how to treat simple possession of drugs in the state.  A current proposal would adjust the charge for possession of small quantities of drugs from an automatic felony to a misdemeanor/felony, giving the prosecuting attorney the authority to determine whether the violation merits a felony conviction or misdemeanor.  Without this change, a prosecutor’s hands are tied, and as a result convicted felons inevitably face long-term obstacles to employment, housing, and government benefits such as student loans.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Hispanics composed nearly 39 percent of all felony drug arrests made in California in 2010.  At the same time, the Latino share of the California inmate population has risen from 28.4 percent in 1986 to 39.3 percent in 2009.  Reforming the sentencing guidelines for low-level drug offenses to allow for greater prosecutorial discretion is a key step toward reducing Latino incarceration rates throughout the state.

We work to promote reforms to our juvenile justice and criminal justice systems that create alternatives to incarceration, improve rehabilitation, and establish cost-effective strategies for dealing with low-level crimes from individuals who pose little or no safety risk to the community.  California’s proposed sentencing reform law, SB 649, allows for more discretion in charging drug offenders.  Instead of handing down a “one size fits all” punishment, the reform would provide prosecutors with greater flexibility to take into account the seriousness of the crime, past history, and any other mitigating circumstances.

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drugs_reformNCLR recently became one of eight cosponsors for SB 649, and our California Affiliates are working closely with Californians for Safety and Justice, the National Drug Alliance, and other community-based organizations to advocate for passage of the bill.  At the beginning of the month, the legislation narrowly passed the State Senate.  During the critical Senate vote, we helped our Affiliates mobilize a response to secure the support of three key Latino caucus members.

Many Californians want this law.  A Tulchin Research poll in late 2012 found that 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.  Thirteen states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government all punish drug possession for personal use as a misdemeanor.  Enacting this legislation makes economic sense, is consistent with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals requirement for the state to reduce prison populations, and provides a reasonable solution for simple drug possession.

It was exciting to see this bill pass in the Senate, but more work lies ahead.  Together with our California-based network of 60 community-based organizations, we look forward to staying involved and hope that our joint advocacy with our partners will help make the most populous state in the country a leader in drug possession reform.

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