California Eases Drug Offense Consequences

Relief for ImmigrantsImmigrants who want to live in the United States must jump through plenty of hurdles, among these is maintaining a clean criminal record or face deportation. With the passage of a new law in California, immigrants living in the state who are charged with minor drug offenses now face less dire consequences, thus getting a chance to join a drug rehab sooner than expected to get their life back on track. 

While California treats minor drug offenses—like simple possession charges—as clear after those who are charged with the offense complete an abuse-treatment program, federal immigration law maintains drug law violations as deportable offenses. Prior to the new law, then, someone who plead guilty to possession of a single joint could clear their name in the state, but could still be deported under federal guidelines. With the new law, California law allows possession and low-level narcotics crime defendants to enter a treatment program prior to entering a guilty plea. This lets immigrants avoid entering a plea altogether, thus avoiding immigration enforcement action altogether.

The loophole is available only to low-level offenders. It can’t be used by defendants with a history of drug sales or violent offenses.

Published reports quoting Human Rights Watch puts the number of immigrants deported from 1997 to 2012 with a drug offense as the harshest conviction at more than 500,000.

Author of the legislation, Susan Talamantes Eggman, told the Los Angeles Times that the new law strikes a more humanitarian chord to low-level offenders.

“For those who want to get treatment and get their life right, we should see that with open arms, not see it as a way of deporting somebody,” she said.

Still, the law does have its opponents. Among them is Sean Hoffman, a lobbyist for the California District Attorneys Association. Hoffman says one of the repercussions of the bill is a more onerous process for prosecutors working in the state. This is especially true when a defendant fails a treatment program. In these cases, tracking down evidence and witnesses many months after initial charges become more difficult.

“We think that there’s another way to address that problem without upending the existing process,” Hoffman said, though attorneys in the association are sympathetic to immigrants’ concerns.