Today’s question: California’s prisons and jails are chronically overcrowded; how much of that is related to drug offenses? How much prison and jail overcrowding, if any, would be relieved by Proposition 5? Previously, Kreit and Cooley debated whether Proposition 5 would make it too easy for offenders whose crimes were loosely related to drug abuse to escape punishment.
Saving taxpayer money and scarce prison space
Point: Alex Kreit
Whatever else might be said about Proposition 5, it would be difficult to dispute that it would reduce prison overcrowding and save taxpayer money. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) estimates that the measure would reduce the prison population by more than 18,000 inmates, or a bit more than 10% of the current population of 171,000. In addition, the LAO calculates that under Proposition 5, there will be 22,000 fewer parolees.
As a result, California taxpayers would save at least $2.5 billion, according to the LAO. To put that number in perspective, $2.5 billion would be enough to pay the salaries of 37,500 elementary school teachers or healthcare for 2 million California children.
This prison population reduction is sorely needed. California currently has too many nonviolent offenders behind bars, and too many nonviolent parolees are sent back to state prison for technical violations of parole -- very often a minor drug violation such as a positive urinalysis. With our prison system at 60,000-plus inmates over capacity, Proposition 5 will help ensure that scarce incarceration space is used for serious and violent offenders.
The ballooning prison population is quickly moving beyond a run-of-the-mill policy problem and becoming a true crisis for our state. Here is how serious the situation is: Just this Monday, a federal district court judge ordered that state officials cough up $250 million for prisoner healthcare by Nov. 5 or risk being held in contempt of court with possible fines of up to $3 million a day.
Frankly, given the dire nature of our overcrowding problem and the difficult choices the state faces, Proposition 5 might be worth considering even if the reduced prison population and taxpayer savings came with costs in the form of a slight decrease in effectiveness. But they don’t. Proposition 5 would achieve its inmate reductions and tax savings without sacrificing efficiency. Indeed, Proposition 5 would improve our efforts to combat addiction and related crimes by offering a public-health solution (drug treatment) to a public-health problem (drug abuse).
How do we know Proposition 5 would work and wouldn’t lead to dramatic increases in crime, as its opponents charge? Because of the track record of Proposition 36, a similar but more limited drug-treatment ballot initiative approved by California voters in 2000.
Eight years ago, opponents of Proposition 36 claimed that the measure would cause violent crime to rise and lead to skyrocketing drug abuse. During that campaign, Alameda County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeff Rubin went so far as to proclaim Proposition 36 “the most devastating assault on our ability to prosecute crimes that has ever been foisted on the citizens of California.”
Eight years later, California has seen a 12% drop in violent crime, 3% more than the national average, according to the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs’ latest report on Proposition 36. The UCLA researchers hypothesized that Proposition 36 may even have contributed to the violent-crime decrease by freeing up prison space for violent offenders and allowing for the incarceration of “more offenders sentenced for more-serious crimes than would have been possible in the absence of Prop. 36.” Meanwhile, Proposition 36 has saved taxpayers more than $2 billion.
Proposition 5 would build on Proposition 36’s successes and address areas that the UCLA researchers have identified as in need of improvement by increasing the availability of residential drug treatment for those with more serious addiction problems and implementing a system of graduated sanctions during coerced treatment.
We are not going to find the solution to our drug and alcohol problems behind bars. If we were, California wouldn’t have the drug problem it still does. Now is the time for a new approach -- and that’s Proposition 5.
Alex Kreit is an assistant professor and director of the Center for Law and Social Justice at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, where he teaches criminal law and criminal procedure.
A dangerous adjustment to state sentencing laws
Counterpoint: Steve Cooley
Let me be clear: Proposition 5 is a sentencing statute, not a treatment statute.
While no system is perfect, California’s current sentencing system allows for appropriate and proportionate treatment of drug users and abusers. There are provisions allowing first-time offenders to enter a diversion program and avoid a criminal conviction if they successfully complete a drug-treatment program.
Drug therapy and rehabilitation programs are often required by judicially supervised conditions of probation. Then there is Proposition 36, which allows people convicted of non-violent drug possession to be sentenced to probation and drug treatment instead of prison or jail. There are also highly successful drug courts that provide access to treatment for the most chronic substance-abusing offenders.
Those in our prisons for drug-related activity are, for the most part, narcotic traffickers -- those who sell and distribute these poisons to our children and fellow citizens. Current law and the criminal justice system provide users and abusers many opportunities to avoid incarceration and to obtain rehabilitation.
The prison population is admittedly large. Incarceration of criminals is the reason the crime rate is at a 50-year low. That is a credit to the good work of police and prosecutors throughout California. Police and prosecutors are committed to putting real criminals behind bars -- murderers, rapists, burglars, child molesters, robbers, identity thieves and other criminal perpetrators who do much harm to individuals and to society.
There is no doubt that Proposition 5 would reduce prison overcrowding because, if approved, tens of thousands of criminals who truly belong behind bars would avoid incarceration. They would simply have to claim they have or appear to have a drug dependency or addiction to be back on the streets.
Alex, you cited the Legislative Analyst’s Office study of the financial impact of Proposition 5 quite selectively. Indeed, it does say that there could eventually be a one-time net state savings of $2.5 billion from constructing fewer prison facilities. But that same study says that Proposition 5’s operating costs could exceed $1 billion annually. The estimates do not include the billions of dollars in real costs to crime victims and society when offenders will predictably commit more crimes while in “treatment.”
Additionally, Proposition 5 would shift many expenses from the state to counties. Court officials in Los Angeles County estimate that Proposition 5 would add $84 million in costs to their courts alone.
As for Proposition 36, Alex, it is not an initiative worthy of expansion. Indeed, the arguments in favor of Proposition 5 would be more compelling if the study by UCLA researchers that you cite was not so damning of Proposition 36 as a failure.
The study found that about two-thirds of the Proposition 36 offenders referred to treatment failed the program. Remarkably, about one-quarter of the offenders never arrived for a single treatment session. Worse yet, UCLA researchers found that offenders in Proposition 36 committed more drug and property crimes than offenders who were not. That same study recommended that more serious felony offenders be excluded from Proposition 36.
Proposition 5 would greatly expand the pool of felony criminals eligible for treatment in lieu of incarceration. It would eliminate both the threat of incarceration as a deterrent to criminal activity and the reality of incarceration for those who most deserve it.
Let’s not give a whole array of criminals who wreak so much havoc on our society the keys to their prison cells. Vote no on Proposition 5.
Steve Cooley is the district attorney of Los Angeles County.