Senate Public Safety Committee
State Capitol, Room 2031
Sacramento, CA 95814
Re: Senate Bill 649
Dear Members of the Committee:
Human Rights Watch writes in support of Senate Bill (SB) 649, the “Local Control in Sentencing Act.” The act would grant prosecutors the discretion to charge individuals arrested for simple possession of illicit drugs with a misdemeanor rather than a felony, as well as give judges the ability to reduce a felony simple possession charge to a misdemeanor at the time of conviction. This would allow offenders to be sentenced for a misdemeanor—punishable by up to one year in jail—rather than a felony, which can result in up to three years of incarceration.
Human Rights Watch is an independent organization dedicated to promoting and protecting human rights in the United States and around the world. We have worked for decades advocating for a fairer criminal justice system in the United States.
Criminal sentences implicate various human rights principles, including proportionality in punishment. Sentences should not be excessive relative to an individual defendant’s conduct and culpability. Given the serious consequences of incarceration for defendants and their families, ensuring proportionality is particularly important for determining the length of any sentence to incarceration.
Under current California law, simple possession of certain controlled substances is a felony punishable by up to three years behind bars. By permitting shorter sentences of up to one year, the proposed legislation suggests that longer sentences may be, in individual cases, disproportionately long relative to the offense and the defendant’s culpability. Certainly the legislation implicitly recognizes that these longer sentences are not necessary to serve the basic purposes of punishment and, indeed, that the costs of such sentences may outweigh their benefits.
Shorter sentences reduce the harm that incarceration inflicts on individuals, their families, and their communities. Moreover, multiple research studies suggest that the length of a sentence does not determine any deterrent and crime-reducing effects of the sanction. Therefore shorter sentences may have the same benefits as longer sentences, while reducing the cost of securing them.
We therefore respectfully urge the California legislature to pass SB 649. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.
Advocacy Director, US Program
Human Rights Watch