Wednesday, April 18, 2012

California Bill Would Make Drug Possession A Misdemeanor

Senator Mark Leno, a California legislator, has introduced a bill that would lower simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Law enforcement officials, however, oppose the move.

California operates one of the largest prison systems in the world. The California prison population is above capacity, and the US Supreme Court recently upheld an injunction requiring the state to release inmates. Overcrowding in the system makes it impossible for inmates to receive necessary medical treatment.

Many of the offenders in California's system are nonviolent drug offenders. In fact, California led a 1980s "tough on crime" trend. States enacted tougher drug laws and 3-strikes legislation. They also ended or sharply curtailed the availability of parole. As a result of these measures, the US prison population has soared over the last 30.  Today, the US has the largest percentage of incarcerated persons in the world.  These persons are disproportionately poor, black and Latino.  Such a massive deprivation of liberty is grossly inconsistent with purported American ideals of justice and equality.

Despite the pressing need to reverse mass incarceration, California law enforcement officials oppose the measure. They argue that it would prevent persons from getting drug treatment. But this reasoning is nonsensical. Courts could still mandate drug treatment even for misdemeanors. Also, the state currently offers drug treatment as an alternative to sentencing, but it has stopped funding this program.

Senator Leno has responded to these concerns by proposing that the state use money it saves by reducing the prison population to fund drug treatment. If law enforcement officials continue to oppose the measure, perhaps it is because they are too invested in the stream of income they derive from the current scheme.

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