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California Drug Sentencing Reform Could Keep Non-Violent Offenders Out Of Prison System

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SAN FRANCISCO -- A bill that passed the California State Senate earlier this week has the potential to fundamentally change the way the state deals with its non-violent drug offenders.

The legislation, introduced by State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), gives local officials more flexibility in how they decide to charge individuals convicted of non-violent drug crimes. This flexibility could ultimately lead to California incarcerating fewer of its citizens, the measure's backers argue.

"One of the best ways to promote lower crime rates is to provide low-level offenders with the rehabilitation they need to successfully reenter their communities," said Leno in a statement. "However, our current laws do just the opposite. We give non-violent drug offenders long terms, offer them no treatment while they're incarcerated, and then release them back into the community with few job prospects or opportunities to receive an education."

Current California law mandates that certain drugs be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies, while others are categorized as "wobblers," in which prosecutors and judges decide for themselves on a punishment. For example, marijuana possession is always a misdemeanor and cocaine is always felony; however, meth is a wobbler. The bill, which does not apply to anyone selling or manufacturing drugs, would turn all simple possession cases in wobblers.

Leno expects that giving local prosecutors and judges the ability the charge and sentence some offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies would both direct more people into rehabilitation programs rather than having them serve hard time and also free up about $159 million annually for said rehabilitation programs.

It could also help the long term life trajectories of some offenders. "[Someone having a felony on his or her record] means that they're unable to find employment, often times unable to get housing," Kim Horiuchi of the American Civil Liberties Union told ABC San Francisco. "So, when we don't provide folks with every opportunity to become productive members of society, it's not that surprising that many folks turn back to drugs."

Even so, much of the California's law enforcement community opposes the legislation. "Undoubtedly, drugs such as heroin and cocaine are highly addictive. Most would concede that drug additions destroy lives and families, and are damaging to society," wrote the California District Attorneys Association in its official argument against the bill. "Minimizing the consequences of addictive and destructive behavior does not make it less addictive or destructive."

Cory Salzillo, the group's legislative director, told HuffPost in an interview earlier this year that his organization was weary of the bill because it "sends the...message that drug possession isn't as serious as it used to be."

The next step for the bill is a hearing before the California State Assembly.

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