Public Comments for: HB612 - Controlled substances; reduces penalties for possession.
I urge you to support HB 612. I understand that today there was testimony that drug courts were the answer, not reclassification. Drug Courts have had declining participation rates in recent years, according to the recent annual report from the Supreme Court. Only 228 people graduated, less than half. In 2020, the failure rate was 58%. Those that don't graduate presumably go to jail to serve out the sentence they pled guilty to. Defendants actually have a higher risk of jail going to drug court than they do if they negotiate a plea. The 74-page report don't even address that issue. They just brag about the $19,000 "savings" drug courts bring to local government, which is utter nonsense. Virtually none of the drug possession defendants spend as much time in jail as a typical drug court participant. And even if that were true, one less prisoner would not mean one less guard. Ask any finance director where the money would be saved. They can't but no one questions that figure. Trying to save Drug Courts by continuing the threat of a 10-year sentence is cruel and unusual. The fact is that the threat of a felony has little effect on a person's decision to use drugs. They simply don't think they will get caught. And most don't. A one-year sentence from a misdemeanor will have exactly the same disincentive as a 10-year felony. But what happens after a person has a felony record, they are less likely to find a good job, will be less likely to find decent housing, and what should get a lot more attention from family-centered politicians, get married, and have strong families with happy children that grow up to be successful adults. Every time a person is given a felony record it degrades Virginia's economic development for decades into the future. For the past year, I've written a weekly newsletter New Era Drug Policy, and I've seen the trend around the country and the world. Treating drug use as a criminal matter has only made things worse. And it's not just liberal states like Oregon, Washington, and California. It's conservative states like Oklahoma, Utah, and Alaska that have defelonized drug possession. Lastly, the threat of a 1-year sentence is PLENTY of incentive to force someone into treatment. Any more is overkill that only makes things worse in a number of ways. You know this is going to happen eventually. Why not do it now.
SAARA of Virginia is in full support of this bill
As a Registered Peer Recovery Specialist and as a Peer Specialist Trainer, I know it is critical that people with current and prior drug offenses be allowed to work on their recovery in the community and be able to avail themselves of treatment of their substance use (and often co-occurring mental health) disorders rather than face jail time and the limited access to recovery services while incarcerated. Jails and prisons are not and should not be considered treatment centers.
I whole heartedly support you TO REDUCE DRUG POSSESSION CHARGES FROM A FELONY TO A MISDEMEANOR Six big things reclassifying possession of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor can do: 1) Save taxpayer dollars 2) Safely reduce incarceration 3) Invest in alternatives to prison, including drug treatment 4) Keep families together 5) Improve police-community relations 6) Let people work in jobs they're best at, improving the local tax base
Save money, help people, stay current: this is the core of my reasons for you to support HB612. Reducing punishment for Schedule I and II drug possession will save related and compounded costs for the Virginian taxpayer. Felony convictions for simple drug possession are excessive and outdated - loss of civil liberties and income-making ability should not be the punishment for having a disease. Substance abuse disorder is that - a disease - and a public health problem that we should solve, but it shouldn’t be a crime requiring a felony charge. Plus, 18 other states and the federal government, including Mississippi, Iowa, and South Carolina, have reduced this to a misdemeanor, which seems much more reasonable.
I urge to committee to support HB612. We need rational drug policies that put public health, safety, and people first.
HB612 -- Support. Class 1 misdemeanor punishment is more than sufficient for punitive purposes and does not civilly disable people via a felony conviction. HB619 -- Support. It is entirely possible that an individual could be in possession of drug paraphernalia with drug residue on it and never have possessed the drugs themselves. This bill addressed that scenario and forecloses a wrongful conviction on that basis. HB797 -- People in prison are paid pennies on the dollar for their work, and they owe non-waivable court costs on their release. Simple fairness calls for at least giving them the fair value of their wage as an offset against costs that are assessed regardless of indigency or degree of culpability. A basic human-rights measure. HB799 -- At the pennies on the dollar that people in prison are paid, it is impossible for them to make a meaningful effort to pay court costs. It is unfair to compound their regressive taxation by charging them interest for nonpayment that is by definition beyond their control.
We need to de-felonize drug possession and provide drug treatment.
I am a Virginia attorney, also licensed in and have practiced law in three other states. Part of my past work includes prosecution. However, the past decade of my career has been dedicated only to pro bono service related to various legal aid entities. I am also a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Eastern Mennonite University. Most relevant to this bill however, is my experience growing up in a home where drugs were present. I first smoked marijuana in 7th grade. I was 12 years old. At 14 I visited my sister in the hospital after she had overdosed on heroine. Fearing for their own prosecution and arrest, her "friends" dumped her body on the side of a road where it was luckily found by police. She survived and went on to herself become and attorney, with a 15-year career as a prosecutor, and she and her husband now have their own successful criminal defense firm. My sister was never truly an addict. That was left for my brother. He was a heroine addict for years. I remember once we were hopeful that he was clean. He had a beautiful child, my nephew who is now an adult himself. Our hopes were destroyed when one of us went to move his car in the driveway and found needles underneath the driver seat of his Camry. In the backseat was my nephew's car seat. We grew up in an upper middle class home. My father himself was a government attorney and my mother was a school teacher. We had all the material benefits that anyone could hope for. Substance abuse is not a disease of the "undesirables." It is a disease of pain. These people use and abuse drugs for a reason, and their problems cannot be fixed by destroying the rest of their lives. They need help. My brother, by the grace of God and against all odds, has now been clean for years. He was and is able to be part of the lives of his three children. He is fully employed, law abiding, and a productive member of society. He is a mechanic working for an international automotive company. If either of my siblings had been caught with drugs, they would be felons. Neither of them would be able to contribute to their communities in the ways that they are. Their communities would be worse for their felonization. Worse. The felonization of drug possession is not keeping our communities safe. It is failing our communities. It is harming our communities, as is anyone who intentionally fights defelonization. It also is not backed by the data. Criminologists, sociologists, psychologists, and medical professionals for years have known what individuals with substance abuse issues need. Why do politicians refuse to do what is right? It is unacceptable. Politicians have the job to protect and help their communities. A vote against defelonization is a failure to do either.
I support a public health approach to drug use in Virginia, an approach that is based on the work of social-scientific experts and that limits harm. To treat drug possession as a felony crime is a terrible mistake, for the individuals who possess drugs, for their families, and for our communities. Please DE-FELONIZE drug possession!
Experts and legal counselors can certainly testify to all the reasons why Virginia should de-felonize drug possession. I hope that this committee would vote to pass this key and important legislation in efforts to continue moving Virginia forward in their reform of criminal justice. Reclassifying drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor is just one step states can take to reduce incarceration and target resources more effectively. This legislation can provide significant cost savings that can be used to increase resources to help provide detoxification facilities, community and residential drug treatment centers and fix the broken behavioral health treatment infrastructure in Virginia. So I appeal to this committee to please pass HB612.
As a physician who has encountered numerous people with substance abuse disorders, I support defelonization of simple drug possession. People with substance use disorders need treatment with drug detoxification centers, harm reduction initiatives, and community and residential drug treatment. In Virginia we do not have enough facilities to treat the drug users who want treatment. People have to wait for beds to open up for them, and too often they die of overdose while waiting. Currently over half of felony convictions in Virginia are for drug possession. If drug possession was de-felonized, there would be massive savings by avoiding trial costs and prison costs. The year after Oklahoma de-felonized drug possession, it had 10,000 fewer indictments, saving huge amounts of money. Money that we saved by de-felonizing drug possession could be spent on expanding the behavioral health infrastructure to treat substance use disorder. This would be more effective in reducing drug use and any associated crimes committed to get the money to pay for drugs. This would improve community safety, help the lives of the families of the substance user, as well as benefitting the substance user directly. Making the substance user a felon doesn't help rehabilitate them; instead, it makes it harder after leaving prison for the person to get a job, housing, and may make them ineligible for public benefits, and student loans. These factors make recovery from substance abuse that much harder. Please support HB 612. Thank you for your consideration of my concerns.
I support reducing the possession of a schedule one or two drug from a felony to a misdemeanor. Substance abuse is not an issue that can be treated with incarceration. It is a disease and for those that struggle with substance abuse it is a life long journey. Making someone a felon for their possession of a drug, causing a myriad of collateral consequences, and placing them in a cycle of incarceration does not help the individual or add to public safety. No one should face up to ten years incarceration for possessing a drug. In practice, some persons face these consequences for only possessing residue, such a small amount that the drug is not measurable. Making this crime a misdemeanor is a public safety and public health issue.