California’s Prop. 47 Brings Big Changes in Drug Crime Sentencing

California’s Prop. 47 Brings Big Changes in Drug Crime Sentencing

Posted on November 21st, 2014

The Nov. 4 decision by voters in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes has received much attention in the media. But in California, another ballot initiative (Proposition 47) that promises significant change in the area of drug policy also received a collective thumbs-up from the citizenry, and in the long run this type of change in the law could have just as big a societal impact as the adoption of less restrictive marijuana statutes.

California’s Proposition 47, also called the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, reclassifies a series of minor property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The initiative passed with a resounding 58.5 percent of the vote, despite the opposition of a majority of the state’s police chiefs and prosecutors. As a result, many individuals who in the past would have been sent to prison after being convicted of drug crimes will instead be put on probation and diverted to court-ordered substance abuse treatment programs.

While the new law promises leniency for a percentage of those convicted of relatively minor drug crimes, people with previous felony convictions for offenses like homicide, rape, the sexual abuse of children and assault with a deadly weapon will still face harsh penalties if convicted of any drug-related violations. One interesting aspect of the California law is that it will apply retroactively, which means that as many as 10,000 inmates currently serving inside the state’s penal system could be released from custody in the near future.

According to estimates by the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, approximately 25,000 fewer people will be sent to prison in the state each year for drug crimes following the adoption of these new rules. When the reduction in felony convictions for small property crimes is factored in, another 15,000 can be added to this number, and since it costs the state of California about $62,000 per year to house an inmate, this translates into a yearly savings of nearly $2.5 billion. This represents about 25 percent of what the state’s taxpayers were forced to dole out in support of the California prison system in 2013, and while a good portion of this money will be reabsorbed by expanded management and monitoring of all the extra people convicted of misdemeanors, the cost reductions will still be substantial (estimates run as high as $200 million annually). The money saved will be used in part to fund expanded drug and alcohol treatment programs for felons, and this approach to the problem should score much higher marks on the cost-benefit analysis sheets than incarceration without rehabilitation.

It hasn’t received much national publicity, but 19 other states have already instituted legal reforms designed to keep nonviolent drug criminals from spending time in prison, and in many cases the changes have included increased access to drug and alcohol treatment. Most of these laws were enacted too recently to invite a full evaluation, but in at least a few states the early results have been notable. In Georgia, for example, following the adoption of alternative sentencing for low-level drug crimes the state’s prison population declined by 14 percent within one year. And in Texas, the largest state besides California to attempt reform so far, the decision to spend an extra $250 million annually on treatment services for those accused of nonviolent drug crimes has helped the government save more than $2 billion in legal system costs over the last seven years.

Punishment of Drug Users Means Punishment for Families and Society

Whatever the original intentions may have been, mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes has been a human rights tragedy and a public policy disaster. The adoption of these punitive rules at the state and federal levels prescribed automatic prison terms for many minor drug offenses, and, under so-called “third strike” laws, thousands of people were sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent crimes simply because they’d had more than one brush with the law. Many of these individuals were struggling with substance abuse issues and a significant number were suffering from some sort of mental illness or disability. But the ideology of punishment that prevailed in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s was rigid and would admit to no compromise, lest political and legal authorities be accused of being “soft on crime.”

Compassion, proportionality and common sense were all misplaced during this era, allowing judgmental attitudes and fiscal irresponsibility to prevail. We can make this latter claim quite reasonably, since people suffering from the disease of addiction were denied the help they needed and the chosen approach embraced some of the most wasteful and least cost-effective anti-drug strategies imaginable. Drug war rhetoric was politically expedient but practically ineffective, and it has taken a long time for politicians, bureaucrats and citizens at large to finally understand this.

Perhaps taxpayer support for the conversion of America into the “incarceration nation” would have remained high if putting a few million people in jail had reduced violent crime and drug abuse. But filling prison beds with nonviolent offenders didn’t rehabilitate anyone and didn’t really do anything to make the public safer, since the most psychotic and dangerous criminals were being prosecuted to the full extent of the law all along. And within the context of the war on drugs, mandatory sentencing operated like an atomic bomb, obliterating the lives and futures of hundreds of thousands of non-combatants who were not involved in high-level drug dealing and had no history of violent crime on their resumes. Mandatory sentencing meant that people suffering from addiction were punished instead of given the treatment they desperately needed, not to mention the impact it had on casual drug users whose lives were forever changed by their exposure to the hard, corrupting influence of prison culture.

Proposition 47 Makes Treatment for Addiction the Priority

Drug addiction is a disease, and the idea that anyone suffering from such a malady could be “scared straight” by a stint behind bars was always false and simplistic. California, along with 19 other states, have started down a new path that will reimagine drug abuse as a medical problem and a societal issue, not as a crime that needs to be met with punishment and condemnation.

Proposition 47 won’t do much to help substance abusers who don’t attract the attention of the police, so it is clearly not a panacea. But if just a small percentage of addicts who encounter legal troubles are able to turn their lives around because they will now be treated like human beings in need instead of like criminals, the benefits to the state of California and to our society as a whole could be immense.

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