Last Saturday, Gov. Brown vetoed Senate Bill 649, which would have softened the penalties attached to simple drug possession in California. SB 649 would have allowed prosecutors and judges more leeway in how they pursue drug cases by giving them the choice on whether to classify the charge as a misdemeanor or a felony.

California state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) wrote the bill in hopes to combat overcrowding in state prisons. The bill have placed more emphasis on drug treatment, probations, or community service as resolutions to the crime, as opposed to incarceration. The bill passed both houses.  

Bill cosponsor and state director of the Drug Policy Alliance Lynne Lyman had some very harsh words regarding Brown’s veto. “The governor let down the people of California,” said Lyman. “The vast majority of voters agree with the experts — locking up drug users is stupid, unproductive, cruel and expensive.”

Currently, there are only a few drugs that judges and prosecutors can determine and classify the charges severity, like methamphetamine and LSD (acid). These drugs are known as “wobblers.” Possession of other drugs, however, are classified strictly as felonies. This group includes drugs like heroin, opium, crack, and cocaine, and the bill would have added them to the list of “wobblers.”

SB 649 didn’t go without some opposition, naturally. The bill was opposed by some law enforcement and prosecutors for fear of the bill “compromis[ing] public safety.”

But cities that have started to abandon the “tough-on-crime” approach to drug possession have experienced a different trend. In 2009, the City of Seattle launched the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. Instead of using incarceration as a catchall resolution for every drug offender, those arrested for simple possession were paired with social workers who helped them find work and a place to live.

Lt. Deanna Nollette, of the Seattle Police Department, attested to the program’s success. “People we’ve dealt with over and over again are getting treatment and getting into housing and getting jobs,” said Nollette.

The state of Texas has even begun to slack up on its aggressive drug possession prosecutions. Texas lawmakers have cut billions from prisons and reinvested some of that money into drug courts and rehab programs. From 2007, when the changes happened, to 2011, violent crimes dropped by 20,000 and property crimes fell by much more, about fivefold.    

A poll released in June indicated that 72 percent of Californians “favored reduced sentences for nonviolent, low-level offenders,” including those arrested for simple drug possession. A panel of federal judges, in 2009, ruled that California prisons are so overcrowded, serving time was equated to “cruel and unusual punishment,” and the state was ordered to find a solution.

Gov. Brown released a statement after vetoing Leno’s bill, calling it “premature” and saying that the state is “to examine in detail California’s criminal justice system, including the current sentencing structure.”

State Sen. Leno responded in saying that “He [Brown] said he’s vetoing because he wants broader reform, but there are no reforms on his desk. This is a missed opportunity.”

Josh is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. Follow him on Twitter @dnJdeli.