They claim that these two reforms alone would save the state hundreds of millions annually: making possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use a misdemeanor instead of a felony and making low-level non-violent property offenses – like vandalism or writing a bad check – a misdemeanor instead of a felony.
According to their statistics, over 9,000 people are currently locked up in state prison for possessing a small amount of drugs for personal use, at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $400 million per year.
Additionally, the bar for being able to charge someone with a felony and send them to state prison is $400 for vandalism. Anyone passing a bad check of $450 or more could also be charged with a felony and sent to state prison. Felonies can result in significantly longer sentences than misdemeanors—up to three years.
As we have seen in Yolo County, for instance, the use of assessors to give higher figures for the cost of vandalism repair has led to felony charges in cases that should have been misdemeanors.
The Vanguard last year reported on an individual who bounced two checks at separate times and the DA’s office combined the total to give the individual a felony charge and, combined with a violation of probation, ended up placing the individual in prison for 9 years at taxpayer expense.
And, in fact, the value of the two checks was not $450, but $215.
As we reported in July 2010, on June 16, 2007 and again three days later, James Davis, a 46-year-old, wrote two checks to Nugget Market that were returned for insufficient funds. Mr. Davis says in his declaration that he was down on his luck and was trying to buy food and necessities for his family.
“The two checks written to Nugget Market were written for food and necessities for my family,” Mr. Davis wrote. “I continue to struggle with a lack of job opportunities, both because I am a laborer with spine injuries and because I suffered felony convictions with jail and prison sentences at a young age. However, I have tried to do the best I can and continue to do what I can to take care of my family. My family always comes first even, like now, when I must take the consequences for my actions.”
As Mr. Davis’ attorney, Lisa Lance from the Yolo County Public Defender’s office, explained in a motion, the combined total of two checks was $215.94. According to the law, a bounced check for $200 constitutes a felony.
“Neither check was close to the $200 required to make this felony conduct, so the district attorney combined the two incidents, making the total $215.94; $15.94 cents over what would have remained misdemeanor conduct even combined,” Ms. Lance wrote.
Worse yet, after the preliminary hearing, the DA’s office piled on two second degree burglary charges, arguing that there was an element of intent – in other words, he knew that these were bad checks when he wrote it. Ms. Lance, though, called that element, “nominally supported” and “circumstantial at best.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Davis faced trial for 3 felonies, 3 prison priors and two strikes “for writing two insufficient funds checks, neither anywhere close to felony conduct by itself.”
Last May the Vanguard reported on the case of Loren Poirier, for whom the DA was seeking three strikes in a case involving separate incidents of vandalism.
Mr. Poirier has a history of serious mental illness, diagnosed as Bipolar Disorder, and there are serious questions both about his competency to stand trial as well as his state of mind at the time in which the crimes were committed.
On September 9, 2009, Mr. Poirier apparently broke windows in an empty house in West Sacramento in the middle of the day while shouting, “America never loses.”
In jail at Monroe Detention Center the next day in the Medical Unit, Mr. Poirier banged on the wire mesh reinforced glass of his cell window with his food tray and broke the glass.
The District Attorney’s office charged Mr. Poirier with felony vandalism for this episode. However, in order for vandalism to be categorized as a felony, it must amount to more than $400 in damage.
The District Attorney’s office acquired an estimate from a glass company in Sacramento that would charge the county $1100 to repair the glass at Monroe Detention Center. However, according to the defense, a local Woodland Glass Company would only charge a little over $300 to do the job. Ironically, that individual was the individual that installed the glass in the first place.
Mr. Poirier was eventually sent to Napa, but this case illustrates the kind of abuse the $400 barrier allows to occur.
In their letter to the Governor and Speaker, the ACLU wrote, “We commissioned a recent poll of likely California voters to gauge public opinion about these issues, and specifically about a straightforward sentencing reform idea: reducing the penalty for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. The results of this public opinion research were remarkable. Solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents from every corner of the state believe that too many people are imprisoned and that penalties for minor offenses are too harsh.”
They argue that felonies involve higher court costs and result in lengthier periods of incarceration.
“The cost savings from these reforms would be substantial,” the letter continues. “These savings would make implementation of your realignment plan less costly, allowing local authorities to use the money saved to fund rehabilitation, drug treatment, and other proven strategies for reducing crime.”
At the same time, these sentencing reforms would help to preserve scarce dollars for education, public safety, health care and social services, the letter argues.
“It will mean that California will stop spending unnecessary millions incarcerating people for lengthy periods who pose no threat to public safety,” the ACLU continued.
The ACLU’s proposed reforms would help to bring back balance to our sentencing laws, so that the punishment fits the crime, and yield substantial savings because felonies involve higher court costs and result in lengthier periods of incarceration than misdemeanors, an accompanying press release argued.
—David M. Greenwald reporting