California's prisons are so overcrowded that we're under a federal court order to cut 8,000 inmates by year's end.

A California lawmaker, Sen. Mark Leno, came up with one idea to ensure that our lockups aren't clogged up with small-time offenders: Let local prosecutors decide if suspects caught with small amounts of hard drugs like cocaine or heroin should be charged with a misdemeanor instead of a mandatory felony.

Over the weekend, Gov. Jerry Brown said no to that bill, SB 649:

In a veto message, Brown said that Leno's bill would overlap with another, SB 105, that might end up doing the same thing. The latter legislation will examine “the current sentencing structure,” Brown said, adding that …

… We will do so with the full participation of all necessary parties, including law enforcement, local government, courts and treatment providers. That will be the appropriate time to evaluate our existing drug laws.

Sounds promising, but backers of the misdemeanor sentencing bill, which passed the state legislature, were still disappointed.

The ACLU says Leno's bill would not have applied to cases of selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs and that it could have saved taxpayers $160 million a year in incarceration and court costs.

Kim Horiuchi, criminal justice and drug policy attorney for the ACLU of California:

By vetoing S.B. 649, Gov. Brown has thwarted the will of the voters and their elected representatives by rejecting a modest reform that would have helped end mass incarceration in this state.

Credit: Nightlife of Revelry / Flickr

Credit: Nightlife of Revelry / Flickr

The law would have applied only to personal-use cases and would have made the small-time possession of the likes of cocaine and heroin similar to marijuana possession — a possible misdemeanor.

Retired Redondo Beach lieutenant commander Diane Goldstein of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition:

This bill would have reduced incarceration and increased the ability for prosecutors and judges to decide minor possession cases based on their individual merits rather than by a one-size-fits-all approach that runs counter to the idea of individualized justice, and that we know simply doesn't work.

The Drug Policy Alliance co-sponsored the bill. The group's California state director, Lynne Lyman, said this over the weekend:

The Governor let down the people of California, the majority of whom support going even farther than this bill would have gone. The vast majority of voters agree with the experts — locking up drug users is stupid, unproductive, cruel and expensive.

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