More than 40 years ago, President Nixon first used the term “war on drugs” to illustrate his commitment to reducing the illegal drug trade. A decade later, President Reagan declared that illicit drugs were a threat to U.S. national security and American values. In the name of these values, zero-tolerance laws were enacted across the country that made possession of drugs for personal use a felony.
Despite good intentions, the long conflict has decimated many communities, leading the United States to incarcerate more people per capita than any other developed nation. It shattered budgets and crippled our ability to distinguish the dangerous from the nuisance.
From 1980 to 2014, the number of people behind bars nationwide for nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 to more than 300,000. California spends more than $10 billion a year on corrections, and in the last 30 years the state has built 22 prisons but only one University of California campus.
Drug abuse, like mental illness, should be treated primarily as a public health problem, not a criminal problem.
Our prisons were so overcrowded that California was forced to downsize its prison population by 23% between 2006 and 2012. Critics warned of consequences for releasing this many offenders, but violent crime and property crime rates dropped 21% and 13%, respectively, during this time. In the last few years, California has taken additional steps to curb its overreliance on incarceration and comply with a court order that deemed our prisons so overcrowded that conditions were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. For example, Proposition 47, which 60% of Californians supported in 2014, reduced simple drug possession and five petty theft offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. The $1.25 billion in estimated savings over five years will be reinvested in education, truancy prevention, treatment and victim services.
Tough-on-crime critics, predictably, have come out swinging, arguing that Proposition 47 is the cause of a recent increase in property crime. But this assertion defies logic. From 2007 through Aug. 31 of this year, the state has reduced its prison population by 43,000, but only 4,402 prisoners were released under Proposition 47. It’s far-fetched at best that the release of these relative few, who were responsible for some of the lowest-level crimes, is causing this increase. Crime rates fluctuate over time, but overall property crime is at a 50-year low.
The extraordinary level of discontent with Proposition 47 from a majority of law enforcement officials is not surprising. Virtually everyone working in law enforcement today — myself included — cut our teeth during the war-on-drugs era. We’ve never experienced another approach, and after decades of jailing people for simple drug possession, it’s difficult to embrace alternatives.
Many in law enforcement believe misdemeanor arrests are ineffective because the consequences are comparatively mild. But in a post-Proposition 47 world — as has always been the case — good, hardworking cops should not try to predict the outcome of an arrest. Declining to make arrests for misdemeanor crimes is bad for the community, public safety and offenders who need help. In San Diego, for example, where police continue to make misdemeanor arrests for drug possession, the city continues to see flat or decreasing crime rates.
Meanwhile, the 4,402 people released from prison under Proposition 47 are saving California more than $770,000 a day. There are also more than 35,000 Californians who have asked the courts to change their old felonies to misdemeanors, and an additional 123,087 people who have petitioned the courts to alter their current sentences.
Before Proposition 47, people convicted of a felony for possessing drugs for personal use often found themselves housed with more hardened offenders. They were inevitably released without having the root cause of their addiction or mental illness addressed. What’s worse, their felony convictions would often preclude them from finding work, as employers are 50% less likely to respond to applicants with records.
One person who petitioned to have an old felony — possession for personal use — reduced to a misdemeanor under Proposition 47 is Sholonda Jackson, who spent her 20s addicted to crack and in and out of prison. Jackson has been sober for 11 years. She’s married and has earned her bachelor’s degree in social work. She hopes to pursue a master’s degree, but before Proposition 47, she was worried that her felony convictions would preclude her from pursuing her dream of working at a Veterans Affairs hospital.
“People said I was hopeless, but that’s not true. I don’t think there’s such a thing,” Jackson told me.
Drug abuse, like mental illness, should be treated primarily as a public health problem, not a criminal problem. Our overreliance on prisons has proved to be the most destructive drug of all. It is time to wean ourselves off this dependence. Proposition 47 is giving people such as Sholonda Jackson hope, and it’s helping California course-correct away from mass incarceration and toward a sustainable public safety system.
George Gascón is district attorney and former chief of police for San Francisco, and former assistant chief of police for the Los Angeles Police Department.