Proposition 47 is supposed to free up prison cells for "real" criminals by reducing drug possession to a misdemeanor offense. But what if those addicts also are the "real" criminals we fear?
I know it's too soon to render a verdict on the initiative approved in November. I was among the 58.5% of California voters supporting the shift away from tough-on-crime laws and a prison-building boom and toward a more balanced criminal justice system.
Proposition 47 isn't perfect, but it's a move in the right direction, I wrote back then.
Now, three months in, I'm reminded that nothing is as simple as it seems.
The measure lowered penalties for possession of heavy-duty narcotics. Heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine now are treated much like marijuana. Users who plead guilty will get, at most, a little county jail time. The money saved on incarceration will pay for mental health and drug treatment programs.
I figured it would give casual drug users a reality check. Arrest would leave them chastened and ready for treatment. They wouldn't be weighed down by felony convictions that can hobble recovery by making it hard to find housing or jobs.
But since Proposition 47 became law, narcotics arrests have dropped while thefts and residential burglaries have begun to rise.
That's because there's a "disconnect" between what the law imagines and what actually exists, said Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks, who spent five years as chief of the LAPD.
"People got the idea that: 'We're going to do the right thing. Let's make room for the real criminals and keep the drug users out of jail,'" he said.
"But what they failed to consider is that people who are using drugs are also committing other crimes. How do they stay heroin users? How do they support their habit? … People don't want to understand that I can't be a crack addict and have a profession. Nobody's giving me drugs. I rob and burglarize and steal.
"That's what's been overlooked. What happens with the quality-of-life issues in a community where there's no threat of incarceration?"
Parks was never a fan of Proposition 47.
He worried that it would undermine court-mandated drug-diversion programs that offered a chance at sobriety to addicts facing felony charges. That it would flood the city attorney with cases the office didn't have the resources to manage. That it removed the threat of prison time for repeat offenders. That it made the theft of a firearm a misdemeanor — a flaw state legislators have recognized and are trying to rectify.
"The real losers will be the community and those inmates that [had been] forced to seek treatment or skills as a part of their incarceration," Parks wrote in an email response in November to my column supporting the proposition.
"Please keep this [note] and access the reality in the next two or three years," he said, "and see if you don't come to the same conclusions."
I'm not there yet, but I am beginning to notice the blind spots in our vision.
I got a glimpse of one last weekend in a Santa Clarita neighborhood where residents feel under siege by a band of bold young meth addicts. They say sheriff's deputies tell them that because of Proposition 47, there's no point in making arrests.
That rankles their boss, L.A. County Assistant Sheriff Michael Rothans.
"It doesn't matter if it's a misdemeanor or infraction. If somebody's calling to report a crime, we ought to investigate," he said. "We do not expect deputies to use discretion when it comes to narcotics arrests. …Book them, and let the system take its course."
But Parks said he understands why officers stand down.
"They're not going to waste their time on things they see don't have a result. You make a drug arrest, go through all the process, book the evidence — and he's back on the street before you're done working on your report."
Proposition 47 does seem to be doing the primary job for which it was intended: easing jail overcrowding.
More than 400 Los Angeles County inmates have been set free since November because their felony crimes now are considered misdemeanors. With fewer addicts and thieves being arrested, there's enough cell space to accommodate people who need to be locked up. So we've cut back on early release for prisoners doing time for crimes such as assault and auto theft.
That makes Proposition 47 good for the guy who gets caught with your stolen iPhone — but not so good for the guy engaged in a drunken brawl at your neighborhood bar.
My question is, which one would you rather be protected from?
UC Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg says that's the wrong question to ask. We ought to be asking instead whether the collective good is served by locking up drug addicts, he said.
He's heartened by news that narcotics arrests are going down.
"There's no evidence that anybody was being helped by the experience of arrest," he said. "There's no research that for chronic addicts, an arrest gets you into treatment. What gets people into treatment is pressure from family members and peers."
We may have to suffer through months or years of growing pains before the initiative pays off — when the money shaved from prison budgets can be funneled into expanding community drug treatment programs.
Krisberg is fine with that. After all, 64% of Los Angeles voters approved of Proposition 47.
"Now it's incumbent on criminal justice officials not to whine and complain," he said, "but to do what the people said they want."