California lawmakers consider changing drug laws

September 5, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
California lawmakers are looking at ways to change the state's drug laws. The goal is to keep lesser offenders from clogging up the courts and the prisons.

Donnell has done hard time in prison for drug possession. The felonies follow him for life, making it difficult to move on now that he's clean.

"If you're trying to get a good job, it's kind of hard; they're not really going to accept you because of the record that you have," Donnell said.

After what's called a procedural vote, the state Legislature will likely send Gov. Jerry Brown a proposal that would allow local prosecutors to charge possession of a small amount of cocaine or heroin as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, the choice is theirs.

Instead of sentencing offenders behind bars for three years, the maximum sentence could be one year in county jail, saving about $160 million a year.

Today, more than 4,000 inmates are serving prison time for simple drug possession.

"A felony should be about violent crime, a felony should about crimes where you hurt someone or take from someone else, a felony is not appropriate for what somebody puts into their body," Drug Policy Alliance spokesperson Glenn Backes said.

Assm. Brian Jones, R-Santee, used to work with families in crisis through his church. He says keeping the felony status for hard drugs helps addicts get the help they need through what's called Proposition 36 funds.

"Part of that hitting rock bottom is being convicted of a felony," Jones said. "In California we have an avenue for them to seek treatment through Proposition 36 funds. So we already have a way out to help them up when they hit rock bottom."

"If you keep getting misdemeanors and misdemeanors, when are you going to learn? I just think a slap on the wrist is just not enough," opponent Kimberly Chase said.

It's hard to say what the governor will do. As California's attorney general, he was tough on crime. But as a governor, Brown is a big fan of letting local authorities make their own decisions.

Donnell hopes the governor gives people a second chance.

"Possession, simple possession shouldn't be as harsh as it is," Donnell said.

The measure does not affect marijuana possession, which will remain as an infraction.


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