A simple solution to the serious problem of prison overcrowding.

By Theshia Naidoo, Alice Huffman, Jakada Imani and Allen Hopper
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing time and again, yet expecting a different outcome.  California has done the same thing with drug users for decades, while wasting billions of dollars and wrecking lives in the process. Not only have we flooded our courts, jails and prisons with low-level drug users, we have made it near impossible them to get their lives back on track.


Senate Bill (SB) 1506 Leno, changes that.  SB 1506 makes simple drug possession a misdemeanor, reducing the max sentence from three years in state prison to one year in county jail.

This simple, yet bold bill is a sharp break from the policies that helped create California’s prison overcrowding crisis. Prosecuting simple possession of drugs as a felony subjects thousands of low-level offenders to lengthy sentences. This bill recognizes that this approach simply does not work.  

Federal law, the District of Columbia, and at least 13 other states all penalize personal possession of controlled substances as a misdemeanor. This change will align California with federal law and a growing number of other states.

Felony sentences for simple drug possession is overkill. Furthermore, it  is not a deterrent, and like so many of the facts of our correction system, these felonies disproportionately  impact communities of color.  

The current classification of these offenses as felonies places enormous burdens on individuals, families, communities, and the state as a whole.  And the burden falls most heavily on low-income people of color. Study after study has found that there are far more White Americans using drugs on any given day, but our courts, jails and prisons are crowded primarily with Black and Latino Americans busted for drugs.

There is no evidence that lock-ups reduce recidivism for drug offenders. In fact, researchers have linked harsher penalties such as incarceration with higher recidivism rates as opposed to  alternatives like probation.  There is similarly no evidence that harsh penalties for drug possession have any effect on rates of drug use or dependency.  Several of the states that changed simple possession to a misdemeanor have lower rates of past-month illicit drug use than California.  

Lengthy felony drug sentences are a significant issue for California's counties, which are currently confronting jail capacity problems.  Many counties are contemplating out-of-county transfer of inmates or even new jail constructions (which our State can not afford) to address possible overcrowding.  Changing drug possession offenses to misdemeanors will not only reduce the length of time a person will be incarcerated in county jails, it will also give counties more flexibility in responding to these offenses.  It will make implementing realignment more affordable for the counties, freeing up money for rehabilitation, drug treatment, and other proven strategies for reducing crime and improving public safety and health.

A felony conviction haunts someone for the rest of their life.  Such convictions exact a devastating cost beyond the formal sentence, many lasting a lifetime, including barriers to employment, housing, voting, education, and public benefits needed to get back on your feet.  Meaning that people convicted of a felony will have a difficult time finding a job or a place to live.  Tens of thousands of people have already found themselves branded as “felon” simply because of minor drug offenses, which by definition are nonviolent and non-serious.  Treating such minor offenses as felonies does not serve the interests of justice and does not serve the interest of the people of this state.  Reducing felony drug possession to a misdemeanor will remove barriers to reentry that people with prior felony convictions now face, allowing thousands of Californians to fully contribute to family and community life through, among other things, employment and taxes.

Senator Leno’s bill is publicly supported. According to a 2011 Lake Research survey, 72% of voters from all regions, ethnic groups and political affiliations support reducing the penalties for nonviolent drug possession offenses.  This bill would not only align California law with the will of the people, it is a common-sense measure and a recognition that it is time to turn away from policies that are unjust, unreasonably expensive, and ineffective.

With this simple of a solution to our over-crowded prisons and jails, California has every reason to embrace SB 1506.

Theshia Naidoo is staff attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance, Alice A. Huffman is president of the California Hawaii State NAACP; Jakada Imani is executive director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights; and Allen Hopper is Criminal Justice and Drug Policy director at the ACLU of California.