California Crimes and Punishments


In 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown Jr., a Democrat, vetoed Senate Bill 649 (sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno-D-San Francisco), to decriminalize simple possession of some illegal drugs. “This bill would allow possession of heroin or cocaine to be charged as a misdemeanor instead of a felony,” Gov. Brown said in a statement

His veto of SB 649 has a basic outcome, according to Lynne Lyman, the Drug Policy Alliance’s California Director: “Up to 10,000 more people will serve time in state prisons this year,” she said in a phone interview. Felony drug charges snare nonwhites mainly.

As Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness [2012] reveals, in the war on drugs, nine out of 10 drug offenders put behind bars are black and Latino. Further, felons face a lifelong fate of second-class citizenship.

They are ineligible for government help, from food stamps to student loans and temporary cash assistance, both Alexander and Lyman explain. Brown’s veto of SB 649 ensures that this year alone, 10,000 more Californians, especially blacks and Latinos, will face this fate of second-class citizenship.

Further, Brown’s veto weakens reform of felony drug laws as a policy to cut prison overcrowding. Recall California is under federal court order to reduce its imprisoned population, i.e., prison realignment (AB 109, a bill he signed in 2011).

Meanwhile, another California Democrat is moving forward to reform other parts of the criminal justice system. In 2014, Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) introduced SB 210 to reform pretrial detainee policy.

“Between 65 and 70 percent of those in our crowded county jails are not serving sentences; they are awaiting trial,” Sen. Hancock said in a statement. This budget priority looms large for county jails holding pretrial detainees, including those facing drug-related offenses, unable to post bail.

The math of this policy matters. There were 82,019 people in county jails statewide in second-quarter 2013 versus 71,293 in third-quarter 2011, according to the California Board of State and Community Corrections .

“Detaining each defendant costs $100 per day, while alternatives to detention cost as little $2.50 per day,” according to Sen. Hancock. Alternatives to jail can drastically cut costs to house arrestees awaiting trial.

“This bill [SB 210] is discretionary, not mandatory. It does not mandate early release in any way, but creates a framework that courts and counties may use to consider whether to use an alternative,” she continued.

“SB 210 would allow a county to designate a local agency to prepare a report about a defendant awaiting trial.

As a requirement, this report must use a validated risk assessment to determine whether a defendant poses a threat to public safety, and will make future court appearances.

“However, a court would retain authority to make the decision about whether the defendant should be detained,” according to Sen. Hancock.

While SB 210 would reform pretrial services and reduce county jail populations, the bill does nothing to reduce the flow of felony drug convictions to state prison. Gov. Brown’s veto of SB 649 ensures that, and belies GOP caricatures of him as a bleeding heart liberal.

Reforming California crimes and punishments continues with mixed results.

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2014

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