California Gov. Gavin Newsom is drawing plaudits from drug reform advocates after signing a bill into law last month that will create the option for an alternate plea to individuals facing certain drug convictions.
Titled the “Alternate Plea Act,” the law enables prosecutors to offer some defendants who have been charged with drug-related offenses a public nuisance plea.
As the Drug Policy Alliance explains, the “public nuisance plea will carry the same criminal penalty as the drug offense charged but without triggering the collateral consequences.”
“With this plea option, individuals will be able to resume their life after incarceration and not be blocked from securing housing and employment,” the group said in a press release last month.
Under the law, prosecutors will be able to offer the public nuisance plea at their discretion. The bill, which has been described as a “first-in-the-nation proposal,” was sponsored by Democratic Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer. The Drug Policy Alliance said that the measure “will serve as a model for other states to follow suit and reduce the draconian consequences for drug convictions.”
“Having the ability to plead to a public nuisance charge instead of a drug offense for noncitizens, lawful permanent residents, or native-born Californians could be the difference between family separation and an opportunity to get life matters in order,” Jones-Sawyer said in a statement last month. “Under current law, there are limited options for a judge and counsel to avoid overly harsh sentencing and disruptive collateral consequences to the individual and their family. AB 2195 gives prosecutors additional resources to seek an appropriate sentence on specified drug related cases, thus protecting California residents, including noncitizens, and their families, from lifelong consequences.”
California lawmakers passed the Alternate Plea Act in August, prompting advocates to urge Newsom, a Democrat widely believed to harbor White House aspirations, to sign the measure into law.
In a letter to the governor sent in August, Alison Leal Parker, the managing director of the Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program, urged Newsom to put his signature to the bill, saying that it would “contribute to mitigating some of the catastrophic collateral consequences resulting from the widespread and racially discriminatory enforcement of drug laws in the state and country.”
“If the proposed bill became law, prosecutors could exercise discretion to prevent or mitigate collateral consequences of drug convictions such as: eviction from housing, an essential resource, denial of professional licenses, and denials of parental rights. Although California policy is to promote successful re-entry and rehabilitation of people convicted of any offense, the collateral consequences of convictions often block this effort. While a conviction for public nuisance can still be considered in all of these circumstances, it will reduce the absolute punishments and bars to services and resources,” Parker wrote in the letter.
After Newsom’s signing of the bill last month, Jeannette Zanipatin, the state director for the Drug Policy Alliance in California, said that the law demonstrates California’s “commitment to continue eradicating the drug war from people’s lives.”
“The severity and pervasiveness of drug convictions are devastating for the life prospects of an individual and their family, it restricts access to a safety net, making it difficult for people to stay connected to family, employment, and the basic necessities of life. For immigrants, almost any drug law violation including minor drug offenses can subject them to automatic ICE detention and deportation,” Zanipatin said, who added that the law “helps put a stop to the drug war’s fixation on continued punishment, ensuring that people are not excluded from accessing resources they need to achieve stability after serving their sentence” and “creates a critical tool to impede the unnecessary exclusion and often permanent banishment of immigrants from their families.”