Stop Filling Prisons, California -- Advocates to Take Sentencing Reform Case 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.

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 aimed.

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:

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 billion.

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 prison."

"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 politicians.

"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.