By Nannette Miranda
SACRAMENTO, CA - Possessing small amounts of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin for personal use, could mean less time in a California jail cell.
Right now, the state considers drug possession a felony, but state Sen. Mark Leno proposes to give prosecutors the option of charging that crime as misdemeanor instead, cutting sentences 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?" Leno said. "The answer clearly is nobody."
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 misdemeanor. Supporters of Leno's bill said drug crimes are not up in those jurisdictions. Many studies show higher participation rates in drug treatment and lower violent crime where misdemeanor for drug possession is available.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, a former Parole Board member, thinks drug sentencing reform is a bad idea since rehab services are overwhelmed.
"Where do low level drug offenders get their money?" Nielsen said. "They rob people. They burgle. They do petty theft. They do crimes to get their drugs."
The American Civil Liberties Union, though, said once the felony is on someone's record, it's difficult to move on.
"That means they're unable to find employment. Often they are unable to get housing, unable to avail themselves of public services," ACLU member Kim Horiuchi said. "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.