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California State Law Overview


California voters passed Proposition 184 in 1994. Known as the Three Strikes Initiative, Proposition 184 mandated life sentences for criminals who committed three felonies—regardless of the nature of the crime. As a result, thousands of people were sentenced to life in prison for minor offenses, including possession of a controlled substance. Proposition 184 created an uproar. Opponents said it discriminated against minorities. Others maintained it violated the Fourteenth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Proponents argued it was the appropriate solution for habitual criminals. In effect, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

Proposition 36

Proposition 36 helped mitigate the repercussions of Proposition 184. Passed in 2012, Proposition 36, also known as the Three Strikes Reform Act, reduced the life sentences of many nonviolent, non-serious offenders, including nonviolent drug possession offenses. In the context of Proposition 36, nonviolent drug possession offenses are defined as one or both of the following:

  • Using and/or being under the influence of a drug listed in the Controlled Substances Act–CSA
  • Possessing or transporting any drug listed in the CSA for personal use

Narcotics listed in the CSA include cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, peyote, ecstasy, marijuana and many others. Restrictions on eligibility include:

  • Prior criminal strike convictions
  • Simultaneous conviction of a nondrug-related misdemeanor or felony
  • Possessing a firearm during the drug possession arrest
  • Refusal to participate in a Proposition 36 treatment program or prior participation in two separate Proposition 36 treatment programs

Manufacture and sale of drugs are considered serious offenses and are not covered by Proposition 36. Possession of large quantities of these drugs disqualifies an individual as well. Proposition 36 is an alternative to prison for individuals who want to turn their lives around and leave a life of drugs behind. Manufacturing and selling drugs or possessing quantities well in excess for personal use indicate a person who has not renounced his prior life.

The pros and cons of Proposition 47

California voters passed Proposition 47 in the November 2014 state election. Known as the Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act, Proposition 47 was drafted after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its overcrowded prison population. The authors of the proposition concluded the state could save millions of dollars in prison costs. This money could be channeled into schools and drug education. The bill included retroactive sentencing and expungement of criminal offense. As of March 2015, California has released 2,700 inmates from its correctional institutions.

Proposition 47 has had unintended consequences. Before Proposition 47, drug offenders had two choices: incarceration or treatment through Proposition 36. Because Proposition 47 has significantly reduced sentence time for most minor drug crimes, many offenders are opting to do their time instead of participating in rehab. Many individuals released early from prison have nowhere to go. Proposition 47’s largesse ended at reduced sentencing and early release. It contained no significant provisions for transitioning inmates back to society. As a result, many low-income areas, including Los Angeles’ Skid Row community, have seen a dramatic spike in crime as more and more parolees show up on the streets.

Proposition 47’s detractors believe reducing drug possession felonies to misdemeanors and reduced jail time will only encourage addicts to continue in their destructive behavior. Proponents contend individuals relieved of drug-related legal repercussions encumbering their lives will be free to finally get the treatment they need. Money saved on prison costs will be put to better use providing options for someone looking to turn his life around. The reality is somewhere in the middle of these two beliefs. The simple truth is a person will continue to abuse drugs until she decides she wants to stop. Proposition 47 benefits the individual who wants to quit drugs. Period.

The gravity of misdemeanor convictions

Facing a misdemeanor conviction is not a trifling matter. Misdemeanors for drug-related offenses, including drug possession, often result in long-term consequences. Misdemeanor convictions appear on an individual’s criminal record; they pop on background checks for credit, employment, etc. Ironically, it is more difficult to expunge a misdemeanor than a felony from a criminal record.

According to California law, any person who completes a drug diversion program shall be accorded the same rights as anyone else. This means no housing or employment discrimination. Despite the law, many companies consider any employee with a criminal record a liability. This is particularly the case for anyone who hopes to have a career in law enforcement. In Sandoval v. State Personnel Bd.—275, Cal.Rptr. 702, 1990—the California Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling in which two correctional officers sued after being terminated because they were found in possession of drugs and paraphernalia.