Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Treating America's Drug Use Outside the Prison System

By James Gilliam, Guest Alumni Blogger

Eric Holder's recent announcement at the American Bar Association's Annual Meeting that he is taking steps as Attorney General to tackle the bloated federal mass incarceration crisis comes at a crucial, and welcome, time. Indeed, preventing the use of the most severe federal drug penalties for people convicted of low-level drug offenses represents an important first step toward a fairer criminal justice system and will begin to curb the overcrowding issue that most every prison in the United States faces.

Now is the time for California -- a state the United States Supreme Court already ordered to reduce its prison population -- to follow Holder's lead. As in the rest of the nation, far too many people are locked up in California for far too long -- people we don't need to keep behind bars to ensure public safety. Rather than base our criminal justice system on knee-jerk, one-size-fits-all reactions like incarcerating people for offenses that could be better dealt with through substance abuse treatment, it is time for California to shift toward solutions that will create safety for California families and communities, while enabling those who have paid their debts to become productive citizens. There's no question that attempting to re-integrate into society is much easier to do without the lifelong barriers that follow a felony conviction, including obstacles to housing, employment, and even public support.

Passing Senate Bill 649 (Leno)--which the Assembly may vote on this week--would be a crucial step toward achieving the kinds of sentencing reforms in California that are so badly needed. SB 649 would give local prosecutors discretion to charge simple possession of drugs as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Passage of SB 649 will also save nearly $1 billion over the next five years, enabling counties across California to strengthen proven alternatives to incarceration by re-investing the savings in the drug treatment, education, job training, housing, and other recidivism reduction programs.

SB 649 will also address the disproportionate impact of drug penalties on people of color and women. We've seen time and again that Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced more harshly than Whites for drug offenses, despite the fact that drug use occurs at the same rate across racial groups. Women are far more likely to be incarcerated for a drug-related offense.

So, whether it's the costs savings or the chance to right the wrongs caused by disproportionate penalties, members of California's legislature who want to stand on the right side of history should support SB 649. Here's hoping they're paying attention to their constituents.

Recent polling demonstrates that Californians overwhelmingly favor the kinds of criminal justice reforms advocated for by the Attorney General, and which would allow California to find lasting and sustainable solutions to the state's over-incarceration crisis. For example, statewide polling the Tulchin Research did last fall found that 75% of Californians favor investing in prevention and alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders. In that poll, 62% of Californians say the penalty for possessing a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use should be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. Nearly two-thirds of Californians who responded to that poll are against investing limited taxpayer resources in the construction of new jails and prisons.

Moreover, SB 649 finds popularity in numerous statewide and local circles, including numerous sponsors like the ACLU, the California State NAACP, Drug Policy Alliance, the California Judges Association, and the California Civil Rights Coalition. And more than 50 individuals and statewide organizations support it.

It's up to the citizens of California to make sure our voices are heard and that our elected officials vote in a way that demonstrates an understanding that the traditional "tough on crime" stance law enforcement so frequently takes no longer aligns with the prevailing voter sentiment calling for law makers to be "smart on crime." Lend your voice to the discussion by signing the ACLU's petition at

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