Proposition 5 follows in the tradition of California ballot measures lined with good intentions and stuffed with disaster. It lures voters with a comforting mirage: a revamped and rational policy for treating drug addiction as an illness and confronting it through rehabilitation instead of punishment. But that’s not what it would deliver. If it passes, Californians would soon learn that they had swept away the state’s few successful diversion programs, inflicted chaos on the parole system, layered on a staggering new bureaucracy and set back the cause of modernizing drug treatment.
On the surface, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act seems to be the logical next step after Proposition 36, a measure Californians passed in 2000 that mandates treatment instead of prison for most people convicted of drug possession. But this step isn’t so logical. Under Proposition 5, an addict caught breaking into a home would be exempt from incarceration if his reason was to feed his addiction and if he agreed to treatment. Judges would likewise be unable to jail someone who stole a car, abused a spouse, drove under the influence (and injured someone), possessed an illegal weapon or committed a host of other crimes -- as long as the perpetrator swore that drugs made him do it. Even dealers profiting from others’ addictions would be offered diversion. Addicts would get repeated chances at rehab instead of incarceration, no matter how seriously they tried -- or didn’t -- to kick their habit.
There are two huge problems with that approach. First, it would jeopardize public safety. Second, it doesn’t work. Treatment professionals know that addicts need a “moment of clarity” -- a point at which they hit bottom, or close enough to it that they can soberly acknowledge the state they are in and the need for change. Often, that moment comes after the addict skips rehab or fails a drug test and is facing a weekend behind bars.
Not all rehab programs are equal. For hard-core addicts, involuntary programs -- to which they are often sentenced by drug court -- are considerably more effective than voluntary ones.
One of the biggest problems with Proposition 5 is that it would repeatedly cycle addicts through ineffective voluntary programs, which impose few consequences for failure. They’re only sent to involuntary treatment (under which they go to jail if they fail a drug test or don’t show up) as a last resort, after they’ve committed a series of crimes. This would cripple the most successful programs in the state.
This isn’t the way forward. Voters should reject Proposition 5 and demand that the state’s criminal justice system finally get the serious examination it requires -- in Sacramento, where flaws can be worked out, rather than cemented in a well-meaning but ill-considered ballot measure.