Voters overwhelmingly believe that California’s prisons and jails are overcrowded and want more alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, according to new poll released today. Support for the shift is truly bipartisan and consistent across the state, explained researcher Ben Tulchin of Tulchin Research.
According to the poll:
Opinion is nearly unanimous that jails are overcrowded and California should find other ways to deal with non-violent offenders (87 percent agree, 61 percent strongly agree).
Most voters statewide (70 percent) favor reducing the punishment for possessing a small amount of drugs, such as heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine for personal use, including nearly half (43 percent) who strongly support this reform. This proposal draws broad backing across party, ethnic and regional lines as voters see this reform as an effective way to reduce overcrowding in jails, save money, help balance the budget and protect funding for other services.
As part of voters’ desire to see a shift away from incarcerating non-violent drug offenders, California voters overwhelmingly favor allowing drug offenders to avoid jail time if they complete drug treatment (87 percent favor, 61 percent strongly favor).
Senator Mark Leno authored Senate Bill 1506, which proposes to revise the penalty for simple drug possession under state law from a felony a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year behind bars as well as fines and probation. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that the law would save counties about $159 million annually, in addition to yearly state savings of $64.4 million. Savings would total $1 billion in just five years.
The savings to the state and the counties will provide an opportunity to reinvest in health, education and the social safety net after years of painful cuts, and to provide more people with drug treatment, Sen. Leno explained.
“Voters across the state, both Republicans and Democrats, recognize that long prison sentences are doing little to deter or limit drug abuse in our communities,” said Leno. Convicting drug users of felonies and incarcerating them without drug treatment does nothing to help them overcome addiction and denies them career and educational opportunities when they are released.”
The federal government already classifies simple drug possession – including cocaine and heroin – as a misdemeanor, as do 13 states. Those states have slightly lower crime rates than felony states, slightly higher rates of people entering drug treatment and lower rates of illicit drug use.
“One year in county jail for a possession offense is a significant and substantial penalty,” said retired Contra Costa Judge Harlan Grossman. “Making simple possession offenses misdemeanors would be more equitable and should lead to quicker resolution of cases, freeing up scarce criminal justice and court resources.”
David Moss, an actor and playwright who grew up in Oakland, has long struggled with an addiction to cocaine that landed him in jail 14 times for being under the influence. He often wonders how much money was wasted sending him to jail time and time again and how that money could have been better spent.
“In grade school, no one raises their hand and says ‘I want to be an addict when I grow up,’” explained Moss. “Treatment gives us a chance to connect the dots to what fuels our addiction. That gives us the opportunity to create a positive ripple effect, instead of causing collateral damage.”
Senate Bill 1506 will be voted upon in state senate before the end of the month.
SB 1506 is co-sponsored by the ACLU of CA, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, California NAACP, Drug Policy Alliance, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights & the William C. Velasquez Institute.