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California Sentencing Reform Should Allow the Time to Fit the Crime

Allen Hopper,
ACLU of Northern California
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May 19, 2011

The revised California budget is out, and sentencing reform is, well, left out. In his revised budget Gov. Jerry Brown recommitted to his criminal justice realignment plan, but didn't include any sentencing reforms that would help ensure that the plan is effective and affordable. Gov. Brown's realignment reserves state prison for people with the most serious offenses and redirects people with low-level offenses to local control. This is a step in the right direction, but it leaves a key piece of the puzzle missing: we should convert minor offenses from felonies to misdemeanors so that the punishment and its associated cost to taxpayers fit the crime.

Two reforms alone would save the state hundreds of millions annually while keeping communities safe: making possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use a misdemeanor instead of a felony, and making low-level, nonviolent property offenses — like vandalism or writing a bad check — a misdemeanor. By making low-level offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies, we decrease costs because sentences are shorter and court costs are lower.

California spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year locking people up for minor offenses when they pose no threat to public safety. We can save money and keep our communities safe by reserving felony sentences for serious crimes. In addition to their high costs, felonies should be reserved for serious crimes because they impose lifetime obstacles to employment, housing, education, and public benefits.

We recently asked voters what they thought, and the results were striking. A solid majority of Republicans, Democrats and Independents from every corner of the state believe that too many people are imprisoned and that penalties for minor offenses are too harsh. Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of likely voters support reducing the penalty for simple possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use. (We commissioned the poll along with Drug Policy Alliance and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. The full results and analysis are online.)

At the end of the day, the time should fit the crime. (Just a few weeks ago a man was charged with a felony after stealing a $2.95 Godiva candy.) Realignment is a promising good first step. The legislature and governor have recognized, through the realignment plan, that low-level crimes don't merit sending people to state prison. Now, let's realign our sentencing laws: felony sentences should be reserved for serious offenses that truly threaten public safety.

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