Houman Fakhimi

California Mulls Lesser Penalties for Drug Convictions

A California bill that would knock convictions for possession of cocaine, heroin and other hard drugs down from a felony to a misdemeanor recently cleared the state Senate, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Our Westminster drug crimes defense lawyers know this measure could be critical, not only for those facing hard time because they struggle with the illness of addiction, but also for state officials who are facing severe consequences if they don't quickly reduce the prison count and curb overcrowding.

As it now stands, these kinds of laws tend to disproportionately affect minority youth. Critics say that the jails are already so overpopulated that knocking possession charges down to misdemeanors will mean little to no jail time at all for these defendants.

But the truth is, charging them with a felony does none of us much good anyway. Most drug abusers aren't violent - they're sick. They need help. The threat of a felony doesn't push them to seek help. It only serves to crowd our prisons until we dump them back out on the streets, with little to no treatment or coping skills. It doesn't work. That's why prisons are a revolving door.

Law enforcement opposed the bill last year, saying that taking away the threat of a felony reduced their leverage in getting drug users to enter treatment. But let's be honest: When is treatment ever the goal of law enforcement? It's Ok that it's not their goal; they're not drug counselors. But let's be realistic about their motives when we're having the discussion.

Some responded that rather than pass a bill like this, the answer would be to build more prison cells and jails. But that is going to cost an astronomical amount of money.

Plus, it doesn't ensure they go to rehab.

We're not talking about violent felons. We're talking about low-level drug offenders who have a problem that is only worsened by slapping them with a felony label, which is going to hamper almost all aspects of their future by the time they get to a place of working toward recovery.

This measure, on the other hand, would save the state and county governments an estimated $165 million.

The California District Attorneys Association had yet to take a definitive stance on the measure, possibly because it provides prosecutors with the option to charge a defendant with either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on a number of circumstances, including prior criminal history and any accompanying offenses.

Offering up this kind of discretion can only serve as a benefit to prosecutors as well as defendants. It's a recognition that drug offenses aren't one-size-fits-all, and that a felony conviction can often do more harm than good to not only the individual involved, but also to society at large.

The measure was approved 23-14.

As the law reads currently, those charged with possession of a controlled substance may serve up to three years in prison, per California Health & Safety Code 11350.

While these laws do apply to street drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin, they can also be applicable to pharmaceuticals that are obtained or possessed illegally.

Contact Houman Fakhimi trial attorney at (714) 705-6701 as soon as possible if you are arrested in Westminster.

Additional Resources:

Senate backs misdemeanor charges for heroin, cocaine possession, May 2, 2013, By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times.