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Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Gov Brown vetoes bill to relax penalties for drug possession

Governor Brown has vetoed legislation that would have eased penalties for people arrested for simple possession of cocaine or heroin.
Governor Brown has vetoed legislation that would have eased penalties for people arrested for simple possession of cocaine or heroin. Kevin Labianco/Flickr

In a move that left advocates of criminal justice reform scratching their heads, Governor Jerry Brown has vetoed legislation that would have downgraded simple possession of heroin or cocaine, allowing local prosecutors to charge those crimes as a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

Currently, state law requires prosecutors to charge people caught with small amounts of heroin or cocaine with a felony punishable by up to three years in jail. Like all adults arrested for a felony in California, they must also provide a DNA sample for a statewide database.

The bill, SB649, would have made heroin and cocaine possession a “wobbler,” – prosecutors could charge it either as a felony or a misdemeanor. Possession of methamphetamine is a wobbler.

“Gov. Brown has rejected … modest reform that would have helped end mass incarceration in this state,” said Kim Horiuchi, criminal justice and drug policy attorney for the ACLU of California. “Brown remains inexplicably opposed to meaningful sentencing reform.”

She said the bill could have affected thousands of defendants annually – many of them drug addicts more in need of treatment than incarceration.

The California District Attorneys Association had opposed the bill.

"Most would concede that drug addictions destroy lives and families, and are damaging to society," the association wrote in its argument against the bill. "Minimizing the consequences of addictive and destructive behavior does not make it less addictive or destructive."

The association’s legislative director, Cory Salzillo, said prosecutors didn’t like a provision in the bill that gave judges discretion to override prosecutors who want to charge cocaine and heroin possession as felonies.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey remained neutral on the bill.

In his veto message, Brown suggested he might support changes in the future. 

“We are going to examine in detail California’s criminal justice system, including the current sentencing structure,” he said, referring to prison overcrowding legislation that calls for a review of sentencing laws. “That will be the appropriate time to evaluate our existing drug laws.”

Drug reform advocates warned drug sentencing reform is hardly guaranteed under the prison legislation. Horiuchi said change is urgent, especially for low-level, non-violent drug crimes.

Advocates said drug crime sentencing reform also gets to issues of about fairness. According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, African Americans are arrested for drug possession more than three times as often as whites in the United States.

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