District Attorney: California Should Reduce ‘Needlessly Harsh Penalties’ For Drug Crimes

California leaders reached a deal last week to make court-ordered prison population provisions not by releasing any prisoners, but by pleading again for a time extension or sending prisoners to private and out-of-state facilities. But San Francisco’s top prosecutor has another vision for easing overcrowding: reform drug sentences.

“In my three decades in law enforcement, I have watched as needlessly harsh penalties have overcrowded our prisons, bankrupted our state, and fed a costly and unnecessary cycle of crime,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón wrote in an op-ed last week, citing similar comments by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder weeks earlier. To end that cycle, he writes, California needs to replace incarceration with rehabilitation and other public health fixes.

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Gascón crunches the numbers and concludes that the state could reduce its prison population by the court-ordered 10,000 inmates with programs it already has in place, particularly an “earned credits” program which enables those who have proven themselves to be low-risk or moving toward rehabilitation to either be released, or to be transferred to other intermediary programs such as community correctional facilities, rehabilitation programs, and “conservation” and “fire camps” where inmates take part in extinguishing fires.

But Gascón also says California could reduce its prison population by at least 4,100 and save $210 million by changing drug possession for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor, as 13 other states have done. A bill to achieve just that died in the state legislature last year. But another moderated version of that proposal is now awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. SB 649 would give prosecutors the discretion to charge personal drug possession cases that are now classified as felonies as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Misdemeanor offenses carry a year in county jail, rather than three in state prison. A similar law that makes drug possession what is known as a “wobbler” offense now applies to methamphetamine possession in California, and marijuana possession is already decriminalized. This law would make possession of cocaine, heroine, and other hard drugs also “wobbler” offenses.

This bill would still mean some possession offenses are charged as felonies, and would leave the discretion to decide in the hands of prosecutors rather than judges. It would also have less immediate effect on California’s prison overcrowding problem, since it would only apply to future offenses. But it would stem the flow of inmates going forward, which will be necessary to keep overpopulation down, especially if federal judges give California the time extension they seek to reduce their population. Courts have thus far rebuffed Gov. Brown’s insistence that California has reduced overcrowding enough. Early results from another California sentencing reform law passed by ballot initiative earlier this year show that releasing low-risk inmates has already improved the lives of many offenders, while posing very little risk to public safety.

(HT: SF Weekly)