DA: Drug Reform Could Solve Gov. Jerry Brown's Prison Problem

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The scurrying in Sacramento this week -- as legislators scramble to meet today's deadline to pass legislation this year -- included horse-trading over California's prison crowding.

The state is under federal court order to reduce its prison population and notorious overcrowding, and must find another place for 9,600 people currently behind bars by the end of the year.

Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal was to ship them out-of-state or to private prisons. A "compromise," cobbled together with state President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, is to beg for an extension -- and then spend $315 million on private and out-of-state prisons if the court rejects the extension.

But there is a third way, according to San Francisco's District Attorney George Gascón: Drug reform.

Specifically, he says, reducing sentences of people in prison solely for drug possession could get California much closer to cutting its prison population.

For starters, Gascón has issue with the 9,600 number being thrown about. "Soft-on-crime" legislators seeking to spook constituencies talk about releasing 10,000 hardened criminals onto suburban streets. Turns out that the state's already halfway there, the DA points out in his op-ed last week in the Sacramento Bee.

California is on track to meet the court order by the end of the year. According to court records, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has already reduced the number of inmates in California's prisons by 4,819 by placing offenders in fire camps and out-of-state prisons. To comply with the court order, the state need only reduce the prison population by another 4,817 inmates by Dec. 31.

Assuming that the always-fluctuating levels of prisoners handled by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation hasn't changed too much, this would mean the state would only be 700 inmates away from hitting that goal if drug sentencing reform were enacted.

There are 4,100 inmates in state prisons for simple drug possession. If those felonies were reduced to misdemeanors, three-year prison terms would be reduced to one-year prison terms, Gascón said in his newsletter this week. And if they were all released from prison (perhaps given to county jail, as they were supposed to have been during realignment)? Problem solved.

Not only that, but keeping those drug users in prison costs the state $210 million annually. If they were released and that money was saved, then that's a big step toward the overcrowding reduction goal -- and a big way to pay for the rest of it.

This is drug possession, not anything more serious. People charged with trafficking or distribution for sale will still be in trouble, a Gascón spokeswoman said.

Not that it's going to make California prisons like staying at the Hilton, or even a dishonest Airbnb: the court order is to reduce state prisons to a cozy 135 percent of capacity. So even if the state does ship its inmates to Texas, Gascón might be onto something.

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Maria Nelson
Maria Nelson

Of course it is. Drug addicts need rehabilitation, not prison. Prison is for criminals

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