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Blowback

Prop. 5 vs. the prison-industrial complex

The officials and special interests who oppose the drug rehabilitation measure are doing so to protect their own power and money.

By Ethan Nadelmann

November 3, 2008

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If Proposition 5 goes down to defeat on Tuesday, the five governors who lined up to condemn it Thursday will have won a Pyrrhic victory. Not one has offered an alternative to Proposition 5 for dealing responsibly with California's prison overcrowding crisis, the exploding prison budget or the outlandish power of a union whose interests lie in incarcerating as many of their fellow citizens as possible.

Each of them has given lip service to the need for treatment instead of incarceration in dealing with drug convictions and other nonviolent offenders with drug problems. But not one of them has shown any willingness to take seriously decades of empirical research on what works best in reducing drug addiction, crime and recidivism.

This has always been an area of government action in which rhetoric drives policy. But what's so depressing about this Gang of Five's united opposition to Proposition 5 is their combination of dishonesty and myopia.

A duplicitous TV ad that features Sen. Dianne Feinstein and is paid for by the prison guards union, beer distributors and casino interests tell us that Proposition 5 will cost too much. But those ads do not acknowledge, cite or even bother to challenge the analysis of the state's legislative analyst's office. Estimated annual cost: $1 billion. Estimated annual savings: $1 billion. One-time savings in capital outlay costs: $2.5 billion. That makes Proposition 5 a wash on annual costs and a true bargain for taxpayers. In fact, it's only the third ballot initiative in the last decade that contains quantifiable cuts to state spending. Only one of those ballot initiatives has passed: Proposition 36, California's first treatment-instead-of-incarceration initiative, which voters passed in 2000.

So why the effort to deceive voters?

It's all about -- no surprise -- resources and power. Why is the prison-industrial complex rearing its fearsome head right now? Because Proposition 5 would effectively transfer $1 billion from prison and parole to treatment and rehabilitation. That means fewer jobs in a massive prison system now consuming about 10% of the state's budget and more resources for programs proven to reduce drug abuse, crime and recidivism more cheaply and effectively than prison and parole.

The opposition to Proposition 5 is grounded in America's tragic exceptionalism when it comes to incarcerating its own citizens. The United States makes up less than 5% of the world's population but claims almost 25% of the world's incarcerated population. We rank, shamefully, first in the world in reported per-capita incarceration rates. But not one of those governors stops to ask why California, with rates of drug use and nonviolent crime roughly equal to those in other advanced industrialized countries, relies on incarceration at a rate five to 10 times higher.

Proposition 5's opponents keep claiming, falsely, that the initiative would make it impossible to hold nonviolent offenders accountable. In reality, Proposition 5 is chock full of accountability, not just for the offenders who get a second chance to get their lives together but also for those charged with enforcing the laws. Ask why California has evolved from the state of higher education into the state of higher incarceration. Ask why the state has built just one new University of California campus but 21 new prisons over the last 25 years. It's because the prison-industrial complex has exercised its political power to ensure that it is never held accountable -- that its budgets grow unchecked and that its exercises of discretion and prejudice are never balanced by independent oversight and objective judgment.

Proposition 5 would provide just that balance. Its provisions incorporate several of the major expert recommendations on prison, parole and treatment diversion reform as put forth by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's hand-picked advisors, the Deukmejian commission, Schwarzenegger's Rehabilitation Strike Team, the governor's Corrections Independent Review Panel, UCLA experts, the Little Hoover Commission, the state Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections' Expert Panel on Adult Offender and Recidivism Reduction Programming, the VERA Institute of Justice and others.

That's what ultimately makes Proposition 5 unacceptable to powerful vested interests within the political and criminal justice system. It dares to speak truth to power and take the politics out of criminal justice -- which is why that motley crew of statehouse residents ganged up Thursday to condemn it. Now it's the voter's turn to lead.

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network (drugpolicy.org), a major proponent of Proposition 5.