California Considers Drug Penalty Changes as U.S. Shifts Policy

California lawmakers are considering reducing penalties for minor drug offenses as the Obama administration said it’s taking a similar approach with federal sentences.

A measure before the state legislature would allow prosecutors to treat the cases as misdemeanors instead of felonies. That would reduce the amount of time convicts would spend behind bars and may help ease state prison crowding.

The issue received national attention this week as U.S Attorney General Eric Holder ordered changes to what he described as “draconian” mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders. That’s part of a shift in crime policy in U.S. states that seeks to reduce the number of people incarcerated. More than 1.5 million people were held in federal and state facilities in 2012.

“Having national leadership with us can only help our efforts here in California,” said state Senator Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco, the sponsor of the legislation, in an interview. “Drug sentencing reform is definitely part of the long-term solution” to crowding, he said.

Leno’s bill passed the Senate in May, and the measure is pending in the Assembly. No vote has been scheduled. Leno said he hopes changes at the federal level will add momentum to his effort.

Legislation that would have reclassified certain drug offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies was rejected by lawmakers last year after opposition from law enforcement groups.

Sidestepping Minimums

U.S. prosecutors will now sidestep the statutorily required mandatory minimums by charging low-level, nonviolent offenders “with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct,” Holder said in an August 12 speech in San Francisco.

Holder also described revised criteria for sentence reductions, expanding the circumstances to include elderly inmates and certain inmates who are the only caretakers for dependents. Also, federal prosecutors could leave some crimes now brought in federal courts to states, Holder said.

California doesn’t know whether that shift means the state would have to handle more prosecutions, said Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The U.S. Supreme Court this month let stand a lower court order that compels California to reduce its prison population by almost 10,000 inmates by year-end.

Reduction Requirement

A three-judge federal panel in June required the state to take new steps, potentially including expansion of good-behavior credits, to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity by Dec. 31.

California has cut its prison population by 37,000 inmates since 2008 and now holds 119,000. The capacity is 86,000.

California’s prison system in 2007 locked up almost twice the number of prisoners that its 33 penitentiaries were designed to hold.

“California’s overcrowding problem is the result of a set of tough on crime policies over the years that have taken an imprisonment first and other options second approach,” said Douglas Berman, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law in Columbus.

California needs an independent panel to rewrite sentencing laws and find ways to send fewer people to prison, Berman said.

“Not only has California not been innovative, but in a state known for Silicon Valley and a state known for helping to provide lots of things that lots of people are grateful for, there is this backward approach to incarceration,” Berman said. “Sentencing reform is a huge missing piece.”

Fewer Inmates

Around the U.S., political leaders from both parties have been calling for changes in the criminal justice system to reduce crowding and lower costs. Holder said Texas and some other states have curbed their prison spending with diversion programs for drug offenders and alternatives to incarceration for those not considered the worst offenders.

California has taken some steps to send fewer people to state prison. Voters in 2012 approved a statewide ballot initiative that modified the state’s 18 year-old “three strikes” law so that life sentences are imposed only when the third offense is serious or violent. It allows for some convicts serving life sentences for non-serious, non-violent offenses to petition for shorter prison terms.

Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, in 2011 won approval to shift felons convicted of nonviolent, low-level crimes to county jails, or to alternatives such as house arrest and electronic monitoring. He canceled half of a $7 billion prison construction plan, saying the additional space wasn’t needed and was the wrong approach.

The governor’s approach “all but eliminated long prison sentences for non-serious and non-violent offenses,” Callison said. “Low-level offenders now serve their time in county jail or some other form of local supervision.”

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