Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stop Filling Prisons, California/ Advocates to Take Sentencing to Voters

from Drug War Chronicle, Issue #524, 2/21/08

California's prison system is in crisis. With some 172,000 inmates,
the state's prison system is second only to the federal system in
size, and its budget has ballooned by 79% in the last five years to
nearly $8 billion annually. Still, the system is vastly overcrowded
and faces two federal class-action suits seeking to cap inmate
populations because overcrowding is resulting in the state not
delivering constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care.

overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (from
In December, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was considering
a plan to release some 22,000 nonviolent inmates early in response to
the festering crisis. But that one-shot approach would not deal with
the systemic problems and policies that created the prison crisis in
the first place.

Now, after years of inaction in Sacramento in the face of the crisis,
a well-funded initiative campaign that would result in a seismic
shift in California sentencing and prison policies, especially when
it comes to drug offenders and those whose offenses are related to
their problematic drug use, has gotten underway. Dubbed the
Non-Violent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA), the initiative would
dramatically expand the treatment and diversion options made
available under a previous reform initiative, Proposition 36, as well
as reform parole and probation programs, and make simple marijuana
possession an infraction instead of a misdemeanor.
About 35,000 California inmates, or about 20% of the prison
population, are doing time for drug offenses. An unknown number,
certainly in the thousands and possibly in the tens of thousands, are
doing time for offenses related to their drug use. It is these
offenders and their future brethren at whom the NORA initiative is
Sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the lobbying arm of
the Drug Policy Alliance and the Santa Monica-based Campaign for New
Drug Policies, the people who engineered the successful Prop. 36
campaign, the NORA initiative would:
* Create a multi-track diversion program for adult
offenders. Track I provides for treatment for nonviolent drug
possession offenders with a plea held in abeyance during treatment.
For those who wash out of Track I, Track II provides Prop 36-style
treatment after conviction, with graduated sanctions for probation
violations, including eventual jail time. Track III is an expansion
of existing drug court programs, with stronger sanctions than the
other tracks. Judges would have the discretion to use Track III not
only for drug offenders, but for any non-violent offenders whose
crimes are linked to their drug use. Track III would be mandatory for
those identified as "high-cost offenders" (five arrests in the past
30 months). The initiative would fund the diversion and treatment
program at $385 million per year.
* Create drug treatment programs for youth. NORA would
invest about $65 million a year to build a prevention and treatment
program for young people where none currently exists.
* Require California prisons to provide rehabilitation
programs to all exiting inmates at least 90 days before release and
for up to a year after release at state expense.
* Allow nonviolent prisoners to earn sentence
reductions with good behavior and by participating in rehabilitation
* Cut parole periods for qualifying nonviolent
offenders to between six and 12 months, instead of the current up to
three years. Early discharge from parole could be gained with
completion of a rehabilitation program.
* Make simple marijuana possession an infraction
(ticketing offense) instead of a misdemeanor.
Not only would NORA mean freedom for thousands of nonviolent drug and
drug-related offenders, it would also save California billions of
dollars. Prop. 36 is estimated to have saved at least $1.3 billion in
five years by diverting offenders to treatment, and the California
Legislative Analyst's Office projects that NORA could generate a
billion dollars a year in savings for the prison system, as well as
obviating the need for a one-time prison-building outlay of $2.5
Paid canvassers for NORA are already hitting the streets in
California. They have until April 21 to gather some 435,000 valid
signatures to put the measure on the November ballot. NORA will make
that goal, organizers vowed.
"We've just announced this to our members and started gathering
signatures," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the Southern California
office of the Drug Policy Alliance Network. "We're very excited. It
looks like the largest sentencing and prison reform in American
history will be on the November ballot."
"This is Prop 36 on steroids," said Dale Gieringer, executive
director of California NORML. "If it passes, this will lead to a
comprehensive rewrite of all of California's laws regarding
sentencing, probation, and parole for nonviolent, drug-related
offenses. And this is a professional campaign. The measure will be on
the ballot in November," he flatly predicted.
"Prop. 36 has been such a success, it has been extensively studied
and proven, but the biggest problem is that it isn't big enough,"
said Dooley-Sammuli. "Combined with the difficulty of getting any
prison reform through and of even obtaining adequate funding for
existing reforms because of the impasse in Sacramento -- we've seen
so many prison reforms die there -- we thought we really needed to
put this on the ballot for stable funding, more treatment, and more
diversion," she said.
"But NORA is not just about expanding Prop. 36," Dooley-Sammuli was
quick to point out. "This is primarily a prison and sentencing reform
effort. It brings common sense solutions to the problem of
over-incarceration in California, especially the over-incarceration
of nonviolent offenders in this state."
"The state has been incredibly reluctant and negligent in addressing
the whole problem of nonviolent prisoners," said Gieringer. "Every
effort to extricate drug offenders from the prison system has been
seen as a political hot potato and has gone nowhere. Sentencing
reform is political poison in Sacramento, yet we have this simmering
prison crisis here in California."
If the politicians refuse to act, said Gieringer, it is time to take
the issue directly to the voters. "This initiative is very justified
because of the negligence of California's political class in not
dealing with these issues," he said. "In fact, it is overdue, and now
we the people have to try to come to grips with the failure of our
political leaders to act. And I think we have the public on our side.
The polling on this has been very favorable. Most people think
nonviolent drug offenses should be handled with treatment, not
"We have federal judges considering whether to take over the entire
state prison system," said Dooley-Sammuli. "We don't have solutions
coming out of Sacramento. We have very real budget problems that mean
we can't afford to keep spending what we are on incarceration. NORA
reallocates state spending from incarceration to treatment and
rehabilitation, so we will end up with substantial savings over
time," she predicted.
Gov. Schwarzenegger's move to release some prisoners early is
necessary, but not sufficient, said Dooley-Sammuli. What is needed is
not one-shot fixes, but systemic reforms, she said. "NORA is not a
one-time opening of the jailhouse gates," said Dooley-Sammuli, "This
is about systemic change in our sentencing and parole practices. This
is not radical; it's common sense. This is not soft on crime; this is
smart on crime. NORA will allow us to get past the politicking and
get some solutions."
At this point early in the campaign season, there is no organized
opposition, but that is almost certain to change. Too many powerful
groups, from prosecutors to prison guards, benefit from the status
quo, and fear-mongering on crime issues is a perennial favorite among
"The question is whether there will be any well-funded political
opposition," said Gieringer. "Then there might be a real fight. But
we haven't seen an opposition committee form yet. That's the real
question mark."
NORA organizers have done their best to blunt opposition at the early
stages by bringing potential opponents into the process, said
Dooley-Sammuli. "We made many, many efforts to make this a
collaborative process by reaching out to a wide variety of
stakeholders. This has been a broad effort to bring in as many
perspectives and sets of expertise as possible, and we've tried to
make friends instead of foes," she said.
Coerced drug treatment is not the best of all possible worlds. But
it's difficult to argue that drug law violators are better off in
prison than in treatment. The NORA initiative will give California
voters a chance to take a giant step in sentencing and prison reform
and a small step toward true justice for drug users.
Drug War Issues Drug Prevention - Addiction Treatment -
Budgets/Economics - Alternatives to Incarceration
Politics & Advocacy Treatment Not Jail - State & Local Legislatures -
State & Local Executive Branches - Ballot Measures

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