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Time for Treatment?

Prop. 5 expands drug rehab programs created by voters' 2000 approval of Prop. 36.

By Patricia Lynn Henley

Dubbed the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA to its friends), Proposition 5 basically asks voters whether they want to try reducing California's ever-increasing prison population by expanding existing drug and alcohol treatment programs. It's a decision about whether to continue with a "lock 'em up" philosophy or follow the trend begun in 2000 when voters approved new treatment and rehabilitation efforts under Proposition 36. Prop. 5 will take that approach a step further, expanding the types of offenders eligible for diversion into treatment programs. NORA will also lighten the charge for possessing less than 28.5 grams of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction (think traffic ticket), fund additional treatment programs for teens considered at-risk of committing future drug crimes, and provide inmates with rehabilitation programs at least 90 days before they're released from prison.

Reactions to NORA fall along somewhat predictable lines. Law enforcement groups warn that it will give career criminals a "get out of jail free" card while creating chaos in the correctional system. Defense attorneys and folks in the rehab community say that NORA will safely reduce prison overcrowding by providing nonviolent offenders and parolees with much-needed treatment and rehab services under close supervision.

Kevin Spillane, a spokesman for People Against the Proposition 5 Deception, charges that Prop. 5 is poorly written and would be difficult if not impossible to adjust. "The initiative enables criminals who have committed other crimes to avoid prosecution and go into a drug treatment program. ... The intent is to enable a wide array of criminals to escape prosecution," Spillane asserts. "This is a back-door attempt to legalize drugs."

That's not true, counters Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the NORA Campaign: Yes on 5. "It certainly isn't a veiled attempt to legalize drugs," she says with a laugh. "All of these attacks we're hearing now in the Prop. 5 campaign we heard in 2000 when Prop. 36 was on the ballot."

In seven years of implementation, she notes, Prop. 36 allowed 36,000 people a year to enter treatment, more than half of them for the first time.

While opponents argue that Prop. 5 limits judges' ability to decide who gets diverted into treatment, Dooley-Sammuli contends it actually gives judges more discretion than they have under Prop. 36.

"It's the judge's decision if what's motivating a nonviolent crime is addiction, and it gives the judge the option that what's needed to break that cycle of crime is treatment. It also gives the judge the option to jail them first. Prop. 5 is untying their hands to be more solution-oriented."

California operates 33 state prisons and related facilities, with a total adult inmate population of 171,000. In the 2008-09 budget, annual operating costs for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is approximately $10 million. The cost to keep an inmate in jail for one year averages $46,000.

The state legislative analyst estimates that Prop. 5 could cost more than $1 billion annually for the expanded treatment program, that it could also save more than $1 billion annually through reduced prison and parole costs, and that there could be an unknown cost to county and local governments.

Prop. 5 takes $460 billion off the top of the state general fund without any guarantee that it's going to be successful, says Sonoma County Assistant District Attorney Diana Gomez.

"The financial impacts are unknown. The legislative analyst's office has no real way to determine if it's going to save billions or cost billions."

But NORA supporters point that although opponents object to earmarking $460 million of the general fund for rehab, many of those same law enforce-ment groups support Proposition 6, which would take $965 million out of the state general fund for law enforcement efforts and to build more prisons.

Prop. 5 supporters say it's time to change how the state spends its money.

"People don't like Prop. 5 because it takes money off the top of the California general fund," acknowledges Michael Spielman, executive director of the Drug Abuse Alternatives Center. "But that money right now is going into prisons, so why not put some of that money into treatment?"

"Prop. 5 isn't perfect, but it will go a long way" toward making things better, Spielman says. "All the studies show that treatment works, so you're giving people a chance at treatment instead of incarceration."

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