Blame it on the “war on drugs,” blame it on insufficient funding for rehabilitation programs, blame it on whatever you want – most Californians agree that the criminal justice system for drug offenders is broken.
The problem is finding a solution.
Proposition 5, which will appear on the ballot on Election Day, is an attempt to improve the system by increasing the focus on drug treatment and rehabilitation. Supporters say rehabilitation – not prison – is what drug offenders need. Opponents claim the measure will greatly endanger public safety by reducing prison time for drug offenders.
Known as the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act of 2008, the act would allocate $460 million every year for this purpose, according to an analysis by the Attorney General of California. The measure would make a number of other changes to drug policy in California, such as shortening parole for certain drug offenses while increasing parole for serious and violent felonies. It would also take away judges‘ discretion to incarcerate certain drug offenders, as well as creating two new state bureaucracies.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that Prop 5 will increase costs to the state by expanding treatment programs and decrease costs due to reduced criminal justice costs. The analysis also estimates a one-time savings of $2.5 billion for prison facilities that would not have to be built because of the change in sentencing guidelines.
What drug offenders need is treatment, said Kelly Parker, executive director of the California Society of Addiction Medicine.
“The idea is that most of the offenses are being committed because of addiction,” Parker said. “The whole idea is getting people into treatment so they can become productive citizens.“
The state is too reliant on incarceration as a solution, she said.
“[Prop 5 is] about stopping the state basically from using incarceration as a form of what they call treatment,” she said. “We need to reallocate resources so the funds are being put into treatment services for people so that they have an alternative.“
Zack Kaldveer, a spokesperson for the Consumer Federation of California, said throwing more and more people in jail has clearly been shown not to be the solution.
“Prop 5 takes on these problems from a public health perspective and a scientific perspective,” he said. Research has shown that expanded treatment and a commitment to rehabilitation are more effective and also save taxpayers money, he added.
Opponents of Prop 5, however, say the measure would open up a can of worms by changing a number of state laws and sentencing rules.
“You really have to look at things, not just from the cost-benefit analysis,” said Jason Baker, a public health advocate with San Diego-based Communities Against Substance Abuse. “Saving money doesn’t always equal effective solutions to problems.“
Baker said Prop 5 would set up a system rife with loopholes for people looking to abuse the system, primarily because it relies heavily on voluntary – not mandatory – treatment.
“There are people in recovery that will tell you that going to jail was the best thing that ever happened to them,” he said. “For them it was the moment of clarity that they needed.“
Prop 5 is also opposed by Yolo Superior Court judges David Rosenberg and Janet Gaard, who recently wrote a guest opinion on the subject in The Aggie.
“Prop 5 would require courts to take into their drug court system offenders who have suffered up to five convictions of any offense within a 30-month period,” said Rosenberg and Gaard in their statement. “Effectively, the target population of drug courts will become the most incorrigible and difficult to treat offenders at the expense of new or first time offenders.“
Among the other concerns the judges outlined in their opinion piece was the limitation of court ability to incarcerate individuals who are found guilty of drug crimes.
“Judges who operate drug courts have found that the ability to impose a brief stint in jail – even the possibility of that imposition – can have dramatically positive effects in convincing drug addicted defendants that it is better to stay in the treatment program and stay clean rather than risk the wrath of the judge,” they wrote. “This proposition removes that tool from judges.“
Visit voterguide.sos.ca.gov for more information on Prop 5.
JEREMY OGUL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.