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October 3, 2018

"Reclassified: State Drug Law Reforms to Reduce Felony Convictions and Increase Second Chances"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new issue brief authored by Brian Elderbroom and Julia Durnan from the Urban Institute.  Here is how it gets started and part of its conclusion:

Recognizing the harm caused by felony convictions and the importance of targeting limited correctional resources more efficiently, state policymakers and voters have made key adjustments to their drug laws in recent years.  Beginning in 2014 with Proposition 47 in California, five states have reclassified all drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.  Following the California referendum, legislation in Utah (House Bill 348 in 2015), Connecticut (House Bill 7104 in 2015), and Alaska (Senate Bill 91 in 2016) passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, and Oklahoma voters in 2016 reclassified drug possession through a ballot initiative (State Question 780) with nearly 60 percent support.

The reforms that have been passed in recent years share three critical details: convictions for simple drug possession up to the third conviction are classified as misdemeanors, people convicted of drug possession are ineligible for state prison sentences, and these changes apply to virtually all controlled substances.  This brief explores the policy details of reclassification, the potential impact of the reforms, and lessons for other states looking to adopt similar changes to their drug laws....

Reclassifying drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor can reduce the negative impacts imposed on people and communities by felony convictions, reduce imprisonment of people convicted of drug possession, and redirect limited resources to treatment and prevention without negatively impacting public safety.

The five states that have reclassified drug possession represent a wide range of political beliefs and reclassification has broad bipartisan support across the country.  Governors from the Republican, Democratic, and Independent parties have signed reclassification legislation, and voters approved reclassification at the ballot in states as diverse as California and Oklahoma.  State profiles in the appendix of this report provide more detail on these reforms, including the definition for drug possession, criminal penalties, projected or actual impacts, and reinvestment funding.

But reclassifying drug possession is only one step that states can take to reduce incarceration and reallocate prison spending to less costly and more effective options.  Lessons from the states that have reclassified drug possession, and research on the wide gap between state funding of behavioral health programs and treatment needs, suggest the need for a significant shift in how states deal with substance abuse and approach drug policy.

October 3, 2018 at 09:51 AM | Permalink

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