California Voters Consider Reducing Penalties for Nonviolent Crimes

Monday, 23 Jun 2014 10:28 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Supporters of a voter initiative in California to reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes hope to gain bipartisan support for the issue, saying it will relieve crowding in prisons while adding the money saved to be used in community programs.

The Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act would reduce lower level felonies such as minor drug possession, petty theft, check forgeries, and other such nonviolent offenses to be reduced to misdemeanors and reconsider sentencing for people already in prison for those crimes, reports The Daily Signal.

The initiative, which could come up for a vote in November, is projected to redirect as much as $1.25 billion over the next five years to programs for mental health and drug treatment, crime prevention, and victims' services.

The plan is primarily backed by Democrats, while conservatives argue such initiatives return convicts to the street and endanger the public, said John Malcolm, director of The Heritage Foundation's Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

That trend may be changing. Malcolm points out that in addition to California, 29 other states have started to implement sentencing reforms.

In some of those states, the initiatives are gaining bipartisan support, as the laws are proving successful. For example, in Texas, crime rates dropped to the lowest level since 1968 when the state lowered its sentencing requirements for drug offenders. Likewise, Michigan's rates for violent offenses and property crimes declined when the state stopped mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses.

New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a possible candidate for the 2016 presidential nomination, says he's been an advocate for years for using treatment and counseling services instead of jail time for drug offenders, reports The Washington Post.

At the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Christie made a new pitch for sentencing reforms, particularly for first-time drug and alcohol offenses.

"When we say we're pro-life, we need to be pro-life for the entire life," said Christie. "We need to stand up for the hurt and the wounded. From the womb until natural death, we need to be there, even for those who stumble and fall, to be there to lift them up."

As a former federal prosecutor, Christie says the "war on drugs" isn't working and won't work.

"What works is giving those people, nonviolent drug offenders, addicts, the ability to be able to get the tools they need to be able to deal with this disease," he told the coalition conference. "I doubt that there is a person in this room who hasn't had the problem of drug and alcohol addiction touch their family or neighbors."

Last year, Christie signed a "good Samaritan" law to protect people from arrest if they call 911 to report they are with someone who has overdosed on drugs. While he initially vetoed the law in 2012, his mind may have been changed by rock star Jon Bon Jovi, a New Jersey native who pushed for the law after his daughter survived a heroin overdose while she was away at college.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate, has also come out in favor of loosening the nation's strict drug laws.

"I don't want to encourage people to do [drugs]. I think even marijuana's a bad thing to do," he has said. "But I also don't want to put people in jail who make a mistake. There are a lot of young people who do this and then later on in their 20s they grow up and get married; they quit doing things like this."

Paul pointed out that both Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have admitted to using drugs. They could have ended up in prison under strict minimum sentencing, Paul said, but such laws target minorities and the poor.

"It would have ruined their lives," said Paul. "They got lucky, but a lot of poor kids, particularly in the inner city, don't get lucky. They don't have good attorneys. They go to jail for these things, and I think it's a big mistake."

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