A team of advocacy groups is pushing Gov. Jerry Brown to include sentencing reforms in the revised state budget proposal he will unveil this month.
The three organizations – the American Civil Liberties Union of California, the Drug Policy Alliance and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights – contend that reducing charges [PDF] for simple drug possession and nonviolent property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors would yield many millions of dollars in cost savings to the deficit-plagued state.
Behind their argument for downgrading the drug possession penalties are poll numbers that suggest voters agree.
A survey of likely voters in March, funded jointly by the groups, found 72 percent* of respondents said they favor reducing the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor.
It is unknown if the governor, or voters, are interested in adding another politically volatile issue – prison sentences – to the pile of difficult budget decisions in the coming months.
The backdrop to the polling and lobbying is California’s fiscal crisis, as the state budget shortfall remains around $15 billion. Brown and lawmakers have already sliced $11 billion in spending.
The ACLU and its partners hope that their two sentencing reform proposals are part of the next round of cuts.
A felony conviction for simple drug possession can bring a three-year sentence in state prison.
“If these were all just straight misdemeanors then the maximum penalty would be 12 months in a county jail,” said Allen Hopper, an attorney with the ACLU of California. “There would be significant cost savings, but beyond just the cost savings we’re of course very concerned about the broader sort of collateral consequences that result from felony convictions.”
The state spends on average approximately $49,000 a year [PDF] to incarcerate each inmate, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. As of December 2009, state prisons held 10,358 inmates for drug possession convictions, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data shows [PDF]. The total annual cost for drug possession convicts is more than $500 million.
Last year, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, removing these offenders from future prison populations.
To date, there has not been sufficient interest among lawmakers to take this step for all controlled substances.
“This can be done with a simple majority of legislators in Sacramento,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the Drug Policy Alliance’s deputy state director. “So it shouldn’t be any problem. Of course, it’s politics so it will be.”
* CLARIFICATION: This post originally stated that 66 percent of likely voters polled said they supported reducing simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. That figure did not include respondents who said they were "undecided - lean favor"; this group totaled 6 percent of likely voters surveyed.