A proposition slated for next month’s ballot proposes legislation that will divert non-violent drug offenders from prisons to rehab.
If Prop. 5 passes Nov. 4, a reduction in probation, parole and prison time will be instituted for non-violent drug offenders. Key changes include the expansion of rehabilitation programs and an emphasis on treatment instead of imprisonment. The proposition also changes marijuana possession laws by reducing simple possession of less than an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction.
Opponents charge that the proposition will allow convicted criminals to avoid incarceration, while supporters claim it will ease overcrowded jails and provide much-needed treatment options.
Although the proposition is estimated to cost around $1 billion annually for the extension of drug treatment and rehabilitation programs, it is also projected to save the state around $1 billion annually in prison and parole costs.
Trudy Schafer, senior director for programs at the League of Women Voters, said the organization endorsed Prop. 5 based on the belief that effective rehabilitation centers are crucial for the creation of a more successful justice system.
“Our general motive is that we want support for intervention that actually helps rehabilitate,” Schafer said. “[Convicts] need the opportunity to have their own well being considered and a system that helps them deal with dependency issues. Prop. 5 sets up a more integrated system of care for those who need treatment for drug problems.”
However, those in opposition to Prop. 5 call it a “get-out-of-jail-free-card.” Mothers Against Drunk Driving strongly opposes Prop. 5 and claims that criminals caught using drugs should be punished through the traditional jail system. Furthermore, they maintain that the solutions offered by Prop. 5 will encourage drug activity.
Silas Miers, program coordinator for MADD California, said Prop. 5 does not hold offenders accountable for their crimes.
“We believe in [the offenders] receiving treatment after serving their full sentence,” Miers said. “Prop. 5 won’t allow the justice system to assess criminals the way they should be. It loosens the law.”
Opponents also claim there is a loophole that allows defendants accused of child abuse, domestic violence, vehicular manslaughter and other crimes to escape prosecution by linking their actions to a drug habit.
Prop. 5 is viewed as an extension of Prop. 36 – The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act -which 61 percent of California voters passed in 2000.
Prop. 36 changed state law to offer first- and second-time nonviolent drug possession offenders the chance to receive rehabilitation treatment instead of incarceration.
Since Prop. 36 passed, the Attorney Generals Crime Statistics show that arrests for dangerous drugs have gone up about 45 percent.
Supporters – like Charles Denton, assistant public defender in Alameda County – say they believe Prop. 5 will bring the changes needed to make Prop. 36 more effective.
“Prop. 36, at least in Alameda County, in addition to some other major counties, is simply not working,” Denton said. “Prop. 5 will allow certain people… who still need the incentive to straighten up an avenue to solve their problems. We really need to do something in the first three to six months to get them on the right track. I think if the option of drug treatment will help some individuals, then that’s great.”
Those in opposition of Prop. 5, however, believe that Prop. 36 is proof of the inevitable failure of Prop. 5.
Miers cited a study conducted by the Justice Policy Institute in 2006 that found that the rates of completion of diversion programs were low. For example, in San Francisco, the completion rate was only 32 percent.
“Where did those offenders go after that?” Miers said. “Did they go back to prison? Are they back out on the streets? What happened to the other 64 percent who did not complete the program?”
Chief Deputy District Attorney in Sacramento Cindy Bessemer said although there is an assumption the passage of Prop. 5 will correlate with a decrease in prison inmates, Prop. 36 has proven otherwise.
“There is discussion that this will lead to reduced prison populations,” Bessemer said. “This is the same thing we were told with Prop. 36, which went into effect in 2001. Actually, prison populations have increased since that went into effect.”
However, Schaefer said the option of rehabilitation far outweighs the costs.
“Having the opportunity for rehabilitation is important because, in so many cases, there simply is none,” Schaefer said. “With Prop. 5, there is a chance to help somebody with their problem that will not get them into the system and make them simply trapped in a system that ultimately teaches them to be longer and better offenders instead of getting them away from the problem.”