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Lower penalty for drug crimes, says San Francisco legislator

9:04 PM, May 23, 2012   |    comments
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SACRAMENTO, CA - Those who have long sought to turn small drug offenses into smaller crimes think they may have new hope for their quest: shifting public opinion and a state budget crisis that could be lessened by fewer people behind bars.

"It serves no one in society," says state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.

Leno's Senate Bill 1506 would change that by making all charges of 'simple possession' (a small amount) of drugs -- marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and more -- a misdemeanor. Many of those are now charged as a felony.

The bill is expected to get a vote in the full Senate next week, and the discussion will undoubtedly turn to money. Leno points to data by the independent Legislative Analyst's Office that estimates the move to misdemeanors could save local and state governments, combined, more than $200 million a year. But the veteran San Francisco legislator says that's only a side benefit of the bill.

"That was not our motivation," says Leno.

Rather, he and drug reform advocates point to the stigma of a felony conviction for simple possession -- one that they say prevents people from finding housing, jobs, or worse.

"There are collateral consequences of a felony conviction," said retired Contra Costa County judge Harlan Grossman in a conference call with reporters. "The lock-them-up mentality has been a complete and total failure when it comes to low level offenses."

Even so, a vast array of law enforcement groups are opposed to SB 1506, even after it was amended last week to raise drug crime fines on the new misdemeanors and earmark the cash for treatment programs. The bill was also modified to allow electronic monitoring of those that refuse probation, thus potentially diverting some of those convicted from being sent to county jails. They say the bill will derail treatment efforts now mandated by 2000's Proposition 36.

"Minimizing the consequences of addictive and destructive behavior does not make it less addictive or destructive," wrote the California District Attorneys Association in its opposition to the bill.

Should the bill make it out of the Senate and then out of the Assembly, it would pose an interesting dilemma for Gov. Brown. The former state attorney general, who has cultivated a close relationship with law enforcement, also may be lobbied to see the bill as a benefit to his still-unfolding public safety realignment program ... and ... to the bottom line of besieged government budgets.


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