California News

Bill: Option to charge hard drug possession as misdemeanor instead of felony

Thursday, September 05, 2013

It could be the first big change to California's drug sentencing laws in years: A new bill gives prosecutors the option of charging possession of certain hard drugs as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. It just passed a major hurdle in the legislature.

"Donnell" wouldn't give us his last name, but he's done hard time in prison for drug possession. The felonies follow him for life, making it difficult to move on now that he's clean.

"If you're trying to get a good job it's kind of hard because they're not going to really accept you because of the record that you have under these drug possessions that I got," said Donnell.

After what's considered a routine vote, the state legislature will likely send Governor Brown a proposal that would allow local prosecutors to charge possession of a small amount of cocaine or heroin as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. The choice is the prosecutor's.

Instead of sentencing offenders behind bars for three years, the maximum sentence could be one year in county jail, saving about $160 million a year.

Today more than 4,000 inmates are serving prison time for simple drug possession.

"A felony should be about violent crime. A felony should be about crimes where you hurt someone or take from someone else," said Glenn Backes, Drug Policy Alliance. "A felony is not appropriate for what somebody puts into their own body."

Assemblyman Brian Jones (R-Santee) used to work with families in crisis through his church.

"Those are the hardest drugs to break the addiction of," said Jones.

He says keeping the felony status for hard drugs helps addicts get the help they need through what's called Proposition 36 funds.

"Part of that hitting rock bottom is being convicted of a felony," said Jones. "But in California we have an avenue for them to seek treatment through the Prop. 36 funds. So we already have a way out to help them up when they do hit rock bottom."

It's hard to say what the governor will do. As California's attorney general, he was very tough on crime. But as a governor, Brown is a big fan of letting locals make their own decisions."

Donnell hopes the governor gives people a second chance.

"Simple possession shouldn't be as harsh as it is," said Donnell.

The measure does not affect marijuana possession, which will remain an infraction.

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