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California law could lessen drug penalties

A new law in California could save the state millions each year and provide extra rights to those accused of drug crimes. The measure, S.B. 649, would help counties throughout the state save nearly $170 million annually by changing the nature of the drug possession charges. Low-level, nonviolent offenders could have their charges reduced by a judge - felonies would become misdemeanors. Judges in these cases could use their discretion to lower the seriousness of the offense, considering criminal past and the nature of the alleged crime.

The state assembly has passed the bill, bolstering the ability of judges to control drug court decisions. The move comes just weeks after announcements by the U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, who is championing a federal initiative to abandon mandatory minimums for those convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. Legislators throughout the state see the move as a positive change. The current system of simply locking up offenders for years at a time without providing an opportunity for rehabilitation is not in the interest of public health, according to one representative from San Francisco. The reduced penalties would allow counties to reinvest the monetary savings into programs to assist addicts and users.

The bill is now destined for the senate before being scheduled for review by the governor. This measure would only apply to those individuals who are found in possession of drugs. Any attempt to distribute, sell or manufacture the substances would still be met with harsh penalties. California would join 13 other states and the District of Columbia by making the changes. In those jurisdictions, drug possession is always considered a misdemeanor crime.

Many judges in the state are also backing the measure, saying they have been forced to hand down regrettable sentences for defendants who did not deserve them. They argue that defendants deserve more rights in simple drug possession cases.

Source: www.courthousenews.com, "Drug sentencing reform bill passes CA assembly" Nick Divito, Sep. 05, 2013

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