Much-needed uniformity

California’s prisons are overcrowded, in great part, because the law currently considers using drugs like cocaine and heroine a felony and does not give prosecutors any discretion when filing charges.

SB 649, a bill sponsored by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), seeks to make punishments for drug consumption uniform. Today, prosecutors can charge meth users with a misdemeanor, while they are required to charge defendants with a felony when they are accused of consuming heroine, cocaine or crack cocaine.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the measure, if approved, can save almost $159 million per year. It would do this by decreasing the costs of incarceration and allowing local governments better distribution of their resources for probation, mental health services and drug rehabilitation.

This legislation will basically add flexibility to the handling of almost 10,000 drug possession cases per year. Both prosecutors and judges will no longer have their hands tied when seeking a better path that includes rehabilitation for a defendant who is being charged with drug possession for personal use and not for sale.

This change will have a positive impact on the state’s budget and will help decrease prison overcrowding.

The bill was recently approved by the Assembly and is on its way back to the Senate, and then will go to the governor for his signature. The federal government is also working to eliminate mandatory sentences for drug use, and 13 states already have laws equivalent to SB 649. Now it’s time for California to also do its part.