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Hard drug possession charges may change in CA

February 27, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and other hard drugs for personal use may soon mean less time behind bars in California.

The state considers drug possession a felony, but state Sen. Mark Leno is proposing to give prosecutors the option of charging that crime as misdemeanor instead, which would could a sentence from three years to one.

The San Francisco Democrat feels the current harsh sentences unfairly target the young and communities of color.

"The public policy question before us is, who benefits from perpetuating a chronic underclass of citizens here in California? The answer is clearly nobody," Leno said.

Felony drug charges are still available for prosecutors to use, but having a misdemeanor option could save the state $160 million in court, incarceration and parole costs. The money would be used to provide more rehab services.

Thirteen states, the District of Columbia and the federal government treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Supporters of Leno's bill say drug crimes are not up in those jurisdictions.

State Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) is a former Parole Board member. He says drug sentencing reform is a bad idea since rehab services are overwhelmed.

"Where do low-level drug offenders get their money? They rob people. They burgle. They do petty thefts. They do crimes to get their drugs," Nielsen said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, though, says once the felony is on someone's record, it's difficult to move on.

"That means that they're unable to find employment," said the ACLU's Kim Horiuchi. "Oftentimes are unable to get housing, unable to avail themselves of public services. So when we don't provide folks with every opportunity to become productive members of society, it's not surprising that many folks turn back to drugs."

The Leno proposal does not affect marijuana possession, which will remain an infraction. Prosecutors already have the option of charging either a misdemeanor or felony for possession of meth.


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