California voters strongly approve of reducing penalties for simple drug possession, according to a poll released Monday by number of groups seeking drug law reforms. Nearly three-quarters (72%) surveyed favored reducing the penalties for drug possession, including strong majorities of Democrats (79%), independents (72%), and Republicans (66%).
Possession of drugs like cocaine and heroin is a felony in California and is punishable by up to three years in state prison. The state's overcrowded prison system currently holds 9,000 drug possession offenders at a cost of $4.5 million dollars a year. The state faces a budget deficit of more than $20 billion.
The polling results will help lay the groundwork for an effort to move legislation that would drop drug possession from a misdemeanor to a felony, advocates said during a Monday teleconference.
Not only did respondents want to see penalties for drug possession lowered, a majority wanted to see them dramatically lowered, if not removed altogether. Some 51% said either that drug possession sentences should not exceed three months (27%) or that drug possession should not be punished with jail time at all (24%).
A majority (56%) said California sends too many people to prison, and three-quarters said the state should instead use the millions spent to imprison drug users for schools, law enforcement, and health care.
Support for drastically reducing sentences for drug possession cut across all demographic, regional, and ethnic lines. And that support would translate into votes during an election, the poll found. More than 40% said they would be more likely to support a candidate who reduced the penalty to a misdemeanor, while only 15% said they would be less likely.
"We found a widely, and intensely, held belief among voters that California imprisons too many people and can no longer afford to spend billions on prisons amid massive cuts to education and social services," said Daniel Gotoff of Lake Research. "This is a voting issue now. Politicians stand in the way of this popular reform at their own risk."
Support for cutting drug possession sentences held up even after respondents were treated to opposing messages, Gotoff said. "It holds up under attack, and voters don't need to be argued into this," he said. "There is a strongly held perception that the state imprisons too many people and that current penalties are too harsh. The voters are pretty solid on this."
"Support for reducing drug possession penalties crosses all the partisan, regional, and demographic lines that normally divide California voters," said Allen Hopper, police practices director with the ACLU of Northern California. "Solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents from every corner of the state overwhelmingly agree that it’s time for a new approach. We need to stop wasting precious tax dollars on unnecessary, expensive jail and prison sentences."
Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill that would "realign" the state's overburdened corrections system by diverting nonviolent offenders from the state prison system to county jails. But that measure has yet to be funded, and it does not reduce sentences, but instead merely shuffles inmates from the state to county lock-ups.
"Sacramento's plan to keep people convicted of personal drug possession at the county level doesn't address the belief of a majority of Californians that drug possession shouldn't be a felony and that people shouldn't be locked up for longer than three months for this offense," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director in Southern California for the Drug Policy Alliance.
"Californians aren't just interested in saving money. They're also interested in seeing people contribute to their families and communities," said Kris Lev-Twombly, director of programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "California voters want to see that people are not burdened with a life-long felony record for drug possession that makes it tough to find a job or support a family. Current penalties work against individual, family and community well-being and public safety."
Also addressing the teleconference was Maria Alexander of the Center for Living and Learning, a reentry services provider. "Many people we serve have successfully overcome drug problems, but now they can't find jobs because they have felony convictions," she said. "The fact that some people can overcome this barrier is a testament to their dedication and hard work, but we don't have to make it so hard. Giving these people felony records is counterproductive and anti-recovery."
"Californians clearly and strongly reject the state's misplaced priorities that have pushed funding toward jails and prisons and away from schools," said Alice Huffman, president of the California State Conference of the NAACP. "The California NAACP urges the state legislature and the governor to listen to voters and reduce the penalty for drug possession for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor."
This poll suggests strong public support for de-felonizing drug possession in California and lesser, but still substantial support for decriminalizing it. Now, it's time to lean on the legislature to bring it into line with enlightened public sentiment.