By Pam Whalen
After a hard-fought battle in the State Assembly, SB 649, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D–San Francisco) is now headed for the Governor’s desk. SB 649 will, if signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, allow prosecutors to charge possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use as a misdemeanor rather than an automatic felony. Advocates argue the bill will help reduce racial inequalities in our criminal justice system. African Americans and Latinos are arrested disproportionably for low-level drug offenses, and the bill would help these individuals successfully reenter the community if they are spared a felony conviction.
Numerous organizations and individuals in Fresno and the Valley contacted their representative in the State Assembly to support this bill.
“I am well aware of the dangers of drugs, but I am also concerned that incarceration and more prisons do little to cure those who suffer from drug addiction,” commented Ralphie Avitia, president of the Mexican American Political Association. “We believe that treatment would do more to heal our brothers and sisters who continue to struggle with drugs,” he continued in a letter he sent to Assembly Member Henry T. Perea (D–Fresno).
Michael D. Evans, chair of the Fresno County Democratic Party, also reached out to legislators. “Putting nonviolent low-level drug offenders in jail or prison for long sentences won’t make us safer. It is expensive and makes it harder for the incarcerated individuals to turn their lives around,” said Evans. “Our legislators should be aware of the disproportionate impact that our harsh drug laws and prejudicial sentencing have on the African-American and Latino members of our community.”
Despite the attempt by many groups to communicate with Assembly Member Perea, he cast his vote to defeat SB 649.
“I am outraged at Henry T. Perea’s vote,” exclaimed Peace Fresno President Beverly Fitzpatrick. “Many constituents expressed their view…this bill was important to many in Fresno. I have some advice for Henry Perea—remember who votes!”
According to Bob Navarro, who is a board member of the ACLU Greater Fresno Chapter, “the legislature did the smart thing in passing SB 649, because returning discretion to trial judges makes the law work. Mr. Perea did the opposite of the smart thing.”
No comment was received from Assembly Member Perea’s office despite several requests.
The Governor must decide the fate of this bill by mid-October. Contact Gov. Brown at 916-445-2841 or http://gov.ca.gov.
Pam Whalen is a longtime labor and community activist and a member of the editorial board of the Community Alliance. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.