About 9,000 inmates in California prison are there on charges of “simple possession” of an illegal drug. And according to a new poll, commissioned by the ACLU of Northern California, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the NAACP, and the Drug Policy Alliance, most Californians don’t think they should be there.
The poll, released earlier today and conducted by Lake Research Partners, sampled 800 registered voters from around the state and found:
56% believe that too many people are imprisoned in California.
72% favor reducing the penalty for personal drug possession, including majorities of Democrats (79%), independents (72%), and Republicans (66%), as well as majorities of voters in every corner of the state.
51% believe that those caught with a small amount of drugs for personal use should spend fewer than 3 months (27%) or no time at all (24%) in jail.
41% say they’d be more likely to support a candidate who reduced the penalty to a misdemeanor, compared to 15% who say they’d be less
Pollsters presented typical arguments both for and against reducing possession of an illegal drug for personal use (as opposed to for sale) to an infraction or misdemeanor. Pollster David Gotoff said those polled had ”an unshakeable sense that this is the right thing to do.”
Currently, the sentence for possession of heroin or cocaine for personal use is 16 months to 3 years in prison for those sent there. Prosecutors determine whether to charge a person with “simple possession” versus “possession with intent to sell” based on a variety of factors, including the amount of drugs found and whether they look like they’ve been packaged for sale.
California’s Proposition 36 offers first and second-time offenders the option of treatment instead of incarceration.
Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said since Proposition 36 passed, there are 55 percent fewer prison inmates serving terms for simple drug possession. Repeat offenders, however, run out of chances under the program. Some people “are compulsively using drugs,” Dooley-Sammuli said. “That doesn’t mean the only other option should be prison.” Moreover, Dooley-Sammuli said, those who’re sentenced under the program have a felony on their records, whether they complete treatment or serve prison time.
Dooley-Sammuli and other members of the coalition that requested the poll hope that the results will inspire legislation or a voter initiative that ends felonies for drug use.
Gotoff seemed to believe that the timing may be right for that change. Gotoff said he’s done a lot of polling for campaigns and policy organizations in California, and one of the tricks of the massive state is that it has several distinct yet massive media markets “with big disparities in their political attitudes.”
Those regions polled–all major population bases–were fairly uniform in their support for reducing the penalty for simple possession of an illegal drug: Los Angeles County (79 percent); Orange County (70 percent); San Diego County (63 percent); Sacramento County (80 percent); the Bay Area (70 percent); and the Inland Empire (67 percent). Voters in those regions also supported Proposition 36 back in 2000, which passed with 60.9 percent of the general vote.
Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed realignment of state prisons, which would send these low-level offenders to jail instead of prison, would not technically reduce the sentence for drug users–they would simply serve their time in jail instead of prison, and would still have felony records.
April 11, 2011
By Rina Palta
NOTE: Poll results/notes in attached PDF
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California Poll: Should drug users go to prison?