Open the Prison Door to Savings

Alex Ricciardulli is L.A. deputy public defender and adjunct professor at USC and Loyola law schools.

Two years ago, California voters overwhelmingly revised the way courts deal with people convicted of possessing drugs for their personal use: Instead of prison, they would receive treatment. But about 10,000 nondangerous drug offenders still languish in state prison because the courts have interpreted Proposition 36 to apply only to individuals sentenced after the measure went into effect. And therein lies an opportunity to reduce the state's projected $34.5-billion budget deficit -- and respect the will of California voters.

The legislative analyst's office, a bipartisan government agency that provides fiscal and policy advice to the Legislature, recently suggested that lawmakers "put everything on the table when considering solutions" to the budget crisis. Among the options was the early release of prisoners. One proposal suggested shaving the sentences of most inmates by up to 12 months, with projected savings estimated at nearly $250 million.

This approach would be similar to one used in other deficit-plagued states. In Kentucky, for example, the governor recently ordered hundreds of prison inmates released in order to reduce his state's deficit. Although the mass commutation was designed to free only low-risk offenders, some who had committed serious crimes like burglary and arson slipped through the cracks. Critics charged that the governor was compromising safety to save dollars.

Kentucky's answer to its deficit would probably face steep opposition here. California is, after all, the state that embraced the three-strikes law in 1994 and then reprised its tough-on-crime tack by approving the Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act in 2000, which increased punishment for juvenile offenders and gang members.

A solution proposed in Kansas is more in keeping with California's sentiments toward drug users. This month, a Kansas sentencing commission will recommend to the Legislature that inmates serving time for drug possession and who have no record of violent crimes or drug trafficking be immediately released from prison and placed in rehabilitation programs. It concluded that the plan would save the state millions because drug treatment in Kansas annually costs about $2,500 per addict, compared with the $21,000 a year required to keep him or her behind bars.

Extending Proposition 36 to cover all nonviolent drug offenders in California prisons would similarly reduce the state's budget deficit, but the potential savings here could be even greater. In June, the state Department of Corrections reported that about 15,000 inmates are serving time for simple possession of drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. About one-third of them would not qualify for release under a broadened Proposition 36 because the law excludes most defendants with "strikes" on their record. But that still leaves some 10,000 inmates.

According to the Department of Corrections, it costs an average of $26,000 a year to house an inmate. A typical year of treatment has a price tag of about $4,000. Thus, freeing those 10,000 drug offenders would save California about $220 million.

How much money is that? Gov. Gray Davis' most recent deficit-reduction proposals for the criminal justice system do not include early release of prisoners. Yet he would cut funding for courts by $60 million, trim crime victims' services and public safety grants by $3.6 million and shorten training for prison correctional officers from 16 to 12 weeks to save $1.3 million.

True, the specter of thousands of drug-addicted convicts suddenly on the streets may scare people into accepting draconian budget cuts -- even higher taxes. But this imagined horror is chimerical. Those eligible for release would be screened to assure that they were not dangerous, and heavily addicted defendants would not be released into the community but to live-in, lock-down residential drug-treatment facilities and halfway houses. Parole officers would closely supervise addicts, who would be tested for drugs to ensure they stayed on the road to recovery.

What's more, extending Proposition 36 to drug offenders in prison could promote public safety. With the savings realized, courts could be fully funded to ensure prosecution of dangerous criminals; victims' services would not have to be cut; and correctional personnel would receive the training they needed to keep truly dangerous felons safely behind bars.

A report issued in September by the Los Angeles Department of Health Services indicated that Proposition 36 is a success, with 80% of drug offenders taking part in treatment. All the more reason for the Legislature to amend the law to provide that drug rehabilitation be extended to all nondangerous addicted offenders convicted of simple possession.

This is a rare opportunity for fiscally correct justice, and it shouldn't be passed up.

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