California Governor Vetoes Bill To Reduce Drug Sentences, Signs New Private Prison Deal Instead

On Saturday, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed a bill that would have led to reduced sentences in many cases involving possession of small amounts of illicit drugs and eased the state’s overcrowded prison crisis.

Far from enacting radical reform, the legislation would merely give judges and prosecutors more flexibility to treat simple possession of cocaine or heroine as a misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in prison rather than the current three years for a felony.

At of the end of 2012, 4,144 people were locked up in state prisons for minor drug possession — costing taxpayers $207 million for just one year of incarceration. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the vetoed sentencing reform would have resulted in shorter sentences for about 15 to 30 percent of cases, saving hundreds of millions of dollars and possibly helping to reduce the prison crowding deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. State Sen. Mark Leno (D), who introduced the bill, said the savings would have been funneled to treatment and rehabilitation programs. Meanwhile, Brown signed a second private prison contract to take on a portion of California’s massive prison population, as Corrections Corporation of America announced Tuesday. A federal court recently ruled that California cannot solve its overcrowded prison problem by trucking inmates off to private prisons in other states, putting a damper on Brown’s costly plan to use private prisons rather than release low-level offenders as ordered by the court. Under this new deal, CCA will take over a federal detention facility in California City and turn it into a state prison.

Turning to private prisons is unlikely to fix California’s swollen prisons, which must be reduced by 9,600 inmates by the end of the year. Private prison companies often extract long-term quota agreements from states requiring full occupancy, keeping prison populations and profits high. Several states have dropped private prison contracts due to widespread corruption, human rights abuses, and mismanagement. Nevertheless, Brown has thus far committed California taxpayers to a bill of $1.14 billion over three years to hand over prisoners to private contractors.


However, Brown indicated in his veto of the drug legislation that he will take up a comprehensive review of California’s sentencing policies and evaluate all drug laws as part of that.