Addiction Reform in California Prisons

The drug problem in California has many aspects. In addition to the immediate devastation on individuals and families, the explosion in the number of prison convictions as the legal system attempted to crack down on offenders led in turn to an urgency to find a solution to overpopulation. Proposition 47, the ballot initiative passed by California voters in November 2014, reduces certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors and allows people who are already serving a felony conviction for these crimes to petition the court for resentencing. In addition, Proposition 47 allows a person who has completed his/her sentence for the specified offenses to file an application before the trial court to have the felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor. The drug problem in Northern California had reached such epidemic proportions that prisons were operating way over capacity.

The measure’s main effects were to convert many nonviolent offenses, such as drug and property offenses, from felonies to misdemeanors. These offenses include shoplifting and writing bad checks in addition to drug possession. The measure also required that money saved as a result of the measure would be spent on “school truancy and dropout prevention, victim services, mental health and drug abuse treatment, and other programs designed to keep offenders out of prison and jail.”

In November of 2015, a report by the Stanford University Justice Advocacy Project authored by the co-author of Proposition 47, found that Proposition 47 had reduced the state’s prison population by 13,000 and that it would save the state about $150 million that year.

Prison Without Bars

In a prison system that had become so overcrowded it was considered “cruel and unusual” punishment, this law has been lauded as a great boon. The idea of thousands of inmates being released from incarceration and free to make a new start is a lovely idea in theory, but the harsh reality is that without the supporting systems for rehabilitation, the truth of the new situation these emancipated inmates are finding themselves in is homelessness and drug addiction. As one inmate stated in a report from The Desert Sun:  “It helped me get out of jail. But ultimately it just let me loose to bury myself.”

So while Proposition 47 has scaled back mass incarceration of drug addicts, successful reform is woefully incomplete. Proponents celebrate how the law freed at least 13,500 inmates from harsh sentences in crowded prisons and jails, but little has been done to help these people restart their lives. Instead, the unprecedented release of inmates has exposed the limits of California’s neglected social service programs and the drug problem in Northern CA especially: Thousands of addicts and mentally ill people have traded a life behind bars for a churning cycle of homelessness, substance abuse, and petty crime.

As noted in a report from the Justice Policy Institute titled “Treatment or Incarceration?” the overwhelming majority of drug prisoners will come back out eventually to rejoin society, many within just a few years or even months, and wind up committing the same offenses for which they were originally jailed.

One way to help ensure public safety and to build families and communities is to make sure that these former prisoners have the tools necessary to lead crime-free lives and to fit into the society.

Proposition 47 earmarked millions saved in prison costs for inmate rehabilitation, but not a penny has been spent; the shortage of treatment programs is more glaring than ever. Expanding rehab would be expensive, but it is still a cheaper, more effective and more humane strategy for addressing addiction than locking drug abusers in prison.

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