A state bill aimed at reducing all felony drug possession penalties to misdemeanors faces an uphill battle in Sacramento, but sponsor Sen. Mark Leno is looking to The City for some last-minute support.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón is California’s only elected district attorney to publically support the controversial legislation, which got a resounding thumbs-down from major statewide law enforcement organizations, including the California District Attorneys Association — of which Gascón is a member.
If the law passes, simple possession of hard drugs such as heroin and crack-cocaine would be considered a less serious crime and would lead to far less incarceration than the current felony standard, which can entail up to three years behind bars. The law would apply only to possession convictions and wouldn’t change standards for drug dealers.
While Gascón agrees with Leno that harsh enforcement of drug laws has helped to create a “chronic underclass” that’s contributing to overcrowded prisons, Marty Vranicar, assistant CEO of the California District Attorneys Association, argued during San Francisco’s annual justice summit Tuesday that reducing penalties does nothing to cure the problem. Vranicar said that without the specter of a felony hanging over convicted drug criminals — in lieu of court-mandated treatment programs — they would be unlikely to choose rehabilitation programs on their own, thus raising the likelihood of repeated offenses and compromising public safety.
In his fight to get the bill passed, Leno has taken the opposite tack, floating statistics showing a drop in both incarceration rates and crime in 13 other states where drug possession penalties have been reduced. Gascón said the facts point to a clear need for reform.
“I don’t think incarceration has taken us where we need to be,” Gascón told the audience at the summit Tuesday. “I think the war on drugs has been a failure.”
An independent state analysis of the bill shows that reducing penalties would result in 2,000 fewer inmates per year in California’s prison system and save a statewide total of $225 million in incarceration costs. A recent phone poll conducted around the bill showed that more than 70 percent of California voters favor drug law reform that’s directly connected to reducing the cost burden of the state’s prison system.
Wendy Still, San Francisco’s chief adult probation officer and another backer of Leno’s bill, said the growing support for prison system reform is not surprising, given the state’s recent move toward “realignment,” in which thousands of state inmates have been moved to county jails from state prisons or released on parole due to overcrowding. She said in her several decades in the criminal justice system, she has never regarded incarceration as a useful tool to avoid repeat offenses.
“Realignment is a good indicator that public sentiment has changed,” Still said.
The bill, which is also facing staunch opposition from the California Police Chiefs Association and the California State Sheriffs’ Association, could reach the Senate floor vote as early as today. To survive the session, the bill would need to get a passing vote by Friday. If passed, it would go before the state Assembly, likely in June.