02/27/2013 03:45 pm ET

California Drug Law Reform Could Save State Millions, But Critics Worry About The Message It Sends

SAN FRANCISCO -- A new bill introduced by California State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) would give county prosectors more flexibility in deciding whether to charge individuals accused of non-violent drug possession offenses with misdemeanors instead of felonies. The move would free up to $200 million annually for rehabilitation programs.

"If our common goal is to have safer, healthier communities with lower crime rates and less recidivism, this is the way to go," Leno said during a conference call with members of the media on Wednesday morning.

Under California's year-old realignment program, an effort to ease overcrowding in state prisons, most low-level drug offenders now serve their time in county jails. These facilities are having trouble dealing with the new population influx that stretches thin both time and budgets and has often created significant negative side effects. By giving local prosecutors the ability to charge more drug offenses as misdemeanors, the bill's backers argue it could relieve some of the pressure realignment has put on sheriff's departments across the state.

California's Moscone Act, passed in 1976, moved marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. However, the sentences for possession of other drugs remain inconsistent. For example, cocaine or heroin is always a felony, whereas meth is a "wobbler," meaning it can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

Leno introduced a similar bill last year, but it was defeated largely due to opposition from law enforcement groups, who balked at the measure's across-the-board redefinition of low-level drug possession. Such opposition was the primary reason Leno's new bill aims to give local officials discretion in the severity of the charges they decide to file.

"This bill takes a more measured approach; it's not as bad [as the previous one]," explained Cory Salzillo, legislative director of the California District Attorneys Association. "But it still sends the same message that drug possession isn't as serious as it used to be."

Salzillo's organization, which represents California's 50 elected district attorneys, opposed Leno's last bill but has yet to release an official position on the new one.

The seriousness of receiving a felony drug charge, and the lifetime of repercussions that come along with it, are precisely what the bill's supporters are hoping to avoid.

Low-level, non-violent drug possession felonies fall disproportionately on young people in African American and Latino communities. Once someone has a felony conviction on their record, they are unable to live in government subsidized housing or receive student loans for college, and they often have difficulty securing private sector employment. The unemployment rate for convicted felons can stretch as high as 70 percent.

"Who benefits from perpetuating an underclass of citizens?" charged Leno. "The answer is nobody."

A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that California had the highest total number of incarcerated youth of any state in the county.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of ACLU of Northern California, which supports Leni's legislation, cited a poll commissioned by the organization that found two-thirds of state residents agreed that non-violent drug possession should be treated as a misdemeanor rather then a felony.