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Just Cause or Just Because?: Prosecution and Plea-Bargaining Resulting in Prison Sentences on Low-Level Drug Charges in California and Arizona

NCJ Number
K. Jack Riley; Nancy Rodriguez; Greg Ridgeway; Dionne Barnes-Proby; Terry Fain; Nell Griffith Forge; Vincent Webb; Linda J. Demaine
Date Published
15 pages
This study examined the impact of diversion reform initiatives on imprisoned low-level drug offenders in California and Arizona.
Key findings from the research regarding low-level drug offenders in California indicate that prior to the reform initiative: 68 percent of prisoners convicted of a drug sale charge had a previous drug conviction, while 72 percent of those convicted of a non-sales charge had a previous drug conviction; imprisoned non-sales offenders had more severe criminal histories than imprisoned sales offenders; and drug type, not race, had a greater influence on charge reductions, with marijuana resulting more frequently in a reduction in sentencing. Prior to implementation of the reform initiative in Arizona, low-level offenders with more extensive and serious prior records were more likely to have the charges reduced, while those with less extensive prior records were more likely to have charges added from arrest to prosecution; charges were reduced for fewer Black offenders convicted of narcotic drug offenses than for other ethnic groups; and probationers rearrested on drug charges, charges were more likely to decrease for those with the fewest and least severe criminal records. The findings indicate that prior to the implementation of the initiatives, offenders in both States convicted of low-level drug charges generally had more severe criminal histories, were involved with harder drugs, or were caught with substantial quantities, lending proof to the contention that convicted low-level drug offenders were in fact more serious offenders than the low-level label suggests and were not receiving the proper levels of incarceration. Following implementation of reform initiatives in Arizona, drug offenders incarcerated in that State were more likely to have more extensive and severe criminal records, while those with less severe backgrounds were able to have their sentences reduced. Analysis following the implementation of California's initiative could not be performed at the time of the research.