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California continues to suffer an economic drought while the corrections and incarceration industry is experiencing a tsunami of funds and is increasingly locking up people convicted of nonviolent, low-level drug law violations. What is the California economy gaining from imprisoning low level drug offenders?

drug arrests

Not much. The war on drugs and in particular the war on people who simply use drugs is increasingly taking from programs that need the resources. In a recent Associated Press article, the author, Don Thompson, confirmed that California needs to cut costs specifically associated with health care that are currently triple the national average. Thompson concluded, “California spends $16,000 per inmate for health care services, compared to an average of $5,000 in other states.” California needs to realign its budget and priorities when incarcerating individuals.

Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and a broad statewide coalition are advocating for a cost effective, health centered alternative to the incarceration of low level drug offenders. Senate Bill 1506 would reclassify possession of drugs for personal use from a felony, punishable by up to 3 years behind bars, to a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county jail.

Voters overwhelmingly believe that California’s prisons and jails are overcrowded and want more alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders. According to a Tulchin Research poll released last week, most voters statewide (70 percent) favor reducing the punishment for possessing a small amount of drugs, such as heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine, for personal use. As part of voters’ desire to see a shift away from incarcerating non-violent drug offenders, California voters overwhelmingly favor allowing drug offenders to avoid jail time if they complete drug treatment (87 percent favor, 61 percent strongly favor).

According to the Legislative Analyst Office, with the passage of SB 1506, California will reduce its costs associated with incarcerating low-level drug offenders by $1 billion in five years. The annual reduction of costs is estimated to affect counties by $159 million and states by $64.4 million. SB 1506 will aid in California's struggle for financial stability by reducing costs associated with court time, daily population intake, and lengthy jail terms. It has been proven by the Justice Policy Institute that states that treat simple drug possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony have higher rates of people seeking drug treatment and recovery. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also concluded that the 13 misdemeanor states have a lower rate of drug use.

The savings that California can benefit from can be used to implement evidence-based drug treatment. The RAND Corporation concluded that every dollar that is spent on substance abuse treatment saves taxpayers almost eight dollars. Does this not seem like a better use of taxpayer dollars?

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According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 30,000 people were incarcerated for simple drug possession over the past four years. These convictions had no connection to violent or serious crimes, but were categorized as felonies. The barriers to reentering society (and ultimately preventing recidivism) are exacerbated by the consequences that come with a felony drug conviction.

In the state of California, a felony drug possession conviction will result in a lifetime ban from obtaining public housing assistance. It may result in the temporary loss of parental rights and suspension of voting rights. The requirement to disclose a felony drug conviction makes obtaining employment difficult in an economy that is already lacking in employment opportunities.

Incarcerating people for low-level, non-violent drug law violations is not strengthening the security or protection of our communities, but is instead crippling the California economy. It is not only imprisoning people who would be much better served at far less expense by receiving quality evidence-based drug treatment; but is also victimizing their families, friends, and communities that are exposed to a racially biased criminal justice system.


Senate Bill 1506 can help reduce prison spending and overcrowding, and reduce the collateral consequences of a felony drug conviction that cause such lasting damage to families throughout the state.

The time for a different approach is finally here. California cannot afford to wait any longer.

Diana Zuñiga
Drug Policy Alliance 

Diana Zuniga is a Project Outreach Associate for the Drug Policy Alliance.