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County DA supports call for drug law reform

Rosen says many reforms already in place; ACLU official says more can be done

Low-level drug offenders don't belong in jail -- they belong in treatment.

That was the message delivered by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this month when he ordered all federal prosecutors to stop pursuing so-called "mandatory minimum sentences" for individuals caught possessing or under the influence of small amounts of illicit drugs.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said he agrees with Holder and his ultimate goal -- shrinking the country's prison population and keeping communities together by reducing the number of non-violent addicts in American prisons.

That said, Rosen added that he doesn't expect much to change locally as a result of the Attorney General's order. That's because the state and county already have laws and policies aimed at keeping low-level drug offenders out of jail.

"Jail is very expensive," Rosen said, explaining that he personally prefers helping get drug users into treatment over incarcerating them. "It's cheaper for the state to have people in drug treatment outside of jail. We want to reserve prisons for serious, violent and dangerous offenders -- not use that space for low-level drug users."

Rosen said county district attorneys try to push such low-level users into treatment programs by offering rehab and counseling as an alternative to being locked up -- and in many cases district attorneys have to take this route. In 2000 voters passed Proposition 36, which required those caught in possession or under the influence of controlled substances be sent to drug treatment.

"That proposition had a very positive effect in the state," Rosen said, estimating that it has saved at least $2 billion and reduced the number of California inmates incarcerated for drug-related offenses by 50 percent.

According to a data analysis by the Northern California office of the American Civil Liberties Union, Rosen and his office are indeed working to keep non-violent addicts out of county jail. Will Matthews, senior communications officer with the ACLU, said it seems Santa Clara County could be doing a better job when it comes to helping drug abusers.

Matthews, who leads an ACLU campaign aimed at reforming California's criminal justice system, pointed to a county Civil Grand Jury report from 2012 that found that about 80 percent of the total county jail population is dealing with a substance abuse problem. "Being addicted to drugs can be the animator for all sorts of crime," Matthews said, noting that many of those inmates with drug and alcohol issues might have been better off going into a drug treatment program -- especially if their crimes were non-violent and were committed in an effort to fuel their addiction. "We'd be better off if we didn't rely so much on incarceration to address social and mental health problems," he said.

Looking at the bigger picture, Matthews said that there are still many unfair state drug laws that county prosecutors must follow. For example, while possession of methamphetamine is considered a "wobbler" -- meaning it can earn offenders either a misdemeanor or a felony -- possession of cocaine and heroin must be charged as a felony, he said. Individuals with a felony on their record face much steeper challenges getting public assistance and finding employment than those with misdemeanor convictions.

"California really needs a total reevaluation of all of its drug laws," he said.

Rosen agrees that more can be done throughout the state and across the country when it comes to the way the authorities prosecute drug crimes. He said he hopes more district attorneys heed Holder's call for more sensible drug enforcement. As it stands locally, however, he thinks the county is taking the right approach. "Right now, in Santa Clara County, I think we have a good balance in how we deal with drugs," he said.

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