by David Downs
California Governor Jerry Brown outlined plans this week to save $500 million a year by keeping citizens with “non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenses,” and no prior convictions out of state prison. Such felons would have to stay at county jail, Brown is proposing, and that's a step in the right direction, drug law reformers say.
The Drug Policy Alliance endorses Brown's proposal, because it reverses a historic trend toward sending low-level offenders to state prison that was “part of the tough on crime insanity that got us mass incarceration in the U.S.,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Brown is effectively saying: Keep it local. Use probation, treatment and county jail. “Nobody benefits by sending a shoplifter to state prison,” said Dooley-Sammuli.
The proposal would also affect people locked up for possession of drugs, and any number of other petty offenses. About 10,000 people are in California state prison for drug possession, the DPA has found. They're not people convicted of possession less than an ounce of pot, which is an infraction. “He's not talking about potheads,” said Dooley-Sammuli. But they do include some of the 17,000 or so arrested for sale or growing recreational pot in California, which can get up to four years in prison.
An uncounted number of parole violators are going back in for smoking a joint, she said, though the state doesn't keep statistics on it. California's recidivism ranks among the highest in the nation at about 71 percent. Roughly 10,000 people enter and exit state prison each month, and most are serving time for parole violations, the DPA said.
On the downside, under Brown's proposal, counties will also have less funds for treatment. But they will have additional funds for probation, which is cheaper than county jail.
Brown also does nothing to address sentencing reform, she said. “Four years in jail for making pot? You save a little bit of money [keeping them at county], but let's get serious about the four years.”
If Brown's plan is accepted, it's hard to say how will it trickle down to the street. Just because there's no room in county jail for harmless growers, does not mean beat cops will exercise new discretion on drug cases.
And the proposal is just part of Brown's starting point for budget negotiations this year. Expect pushback from counties who say they need resources, and local sherrifs who'll say it leads to decreased public safety.
The massive budget deficit in California reframes that argument, though. “It's an issue of money. You can't provide public safety with no money,” said Dooley-Sammuli.
Conservative representatives say they want to control spending, but “we'll see if they're ready to continue printing money to keep people in prison.”