Pubdate: Sun, 19 Oct 2014
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2014 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Kristina Davis


Prop. 47 would ease sentences in most possession cases; critics say 
it removes incentive to get clean

A hypothetical: One methamphetamine addict is ordered by a judge to 
complete drug treatment or face time in prison. Another is offered 
the chance to enter treatment voluntarily. Which one has a better 
chance of success?

That's the central question in the debate over Proposition 47 on the 
Nov. 4 ballot. It asks voters to lower six nonviolent crimes - 
including simple drug possession - to misdemeanors, which are 
punishable by no more than a year in jail.

The estimated $200 million a year that would be saved on imprisoning 
those offenders would fund substance abuse and mental health 
programs, as well as truancy prevention and victims' services.

Advocates say the money would make treatment more widely available to 
those charged with such crimes, with the aim of rebuilding lives, 
reconnecting families and stopping the revolving door of 
addiction-related incarceration. The measure was drafted in part by 
retired San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne.

Critics, who include the majority of law enforcement and drug court 
professionals, argue the law would backfire.

They say that without the threat of a felony on their record or 
serious time behind bars, offenders would have little incentive to 
complete court-ordered drug treatment programs. Plus, nothing in 
Proposition 47 mandates treatment.

So, which addict in our hypothetical situation would fare better? 
Despite the bounty of research on the issue, conflicting findings 
make it hard to know.

"I think it's fair to say the jury is out on that," said Lenore 
Anderson, a former San Francisco prosecutor who is working to get 
Proposition 47 passed. "I don't think there's consistent agreement 
with the notion that compelled treatment works better."

Research shows that, generally, the success rate is the same for 
involuntary and voluntary treatment, said John Richardson, chairman 
of the Alcohol and Drug Service Providers Association of San Diego.

But, he said, that shouldn't minimize the success of drug courts, and 
a large body of data also show how compelled, specialized treatment 
has been instrumental in turning lives around.

Drug courts operate with strict supervision from a judge and are 
tailored for each specific offender. San Diego County's program lasts 
at least 18 months and includes accountability, intensive treatment, 
a strong support network, mandatory drug testing - and often the 
threat of going to prison upon messing up.

Several national studies have concluded that drug courts generally 
reduce crime when considering the recidivism rates of drug court 
graduates versus offenders who didn't participate.

In San Diego County, 71 percent of drug court graduates remain out of 
trouble three years later, according to 2011 data.

But there's indications that as the penalties loosen, participation 
in court-mandated treatment also slides. Take Proposition 36, which 
voters passed in 2000. It requires California courts to offer 
treatment rather than incarceration for first-time, nonviolent 
drug-possession offenders.

What made 36's programs different from drug courts was less judicial 
supervision, less-frequent drug testing and lighter consequences for 
noncompliance. In 2008, 41 percent of participants graduated 
statewide, a UCLA report shows, lower than the national drug court 
graduation rate of 57 percent.

With that in mind, how would reducing drug possession to misdemeanors 
affect California? Would drug use go up? Would fewer people get treated?

According to a 2008 report from the Justice Policy Institute, more 
people were getting treatment and fewer people getting imprisoned in 
misdemeanor states, such as Vermont and Maryland. For instance, Iowa, 
which has made such crimes misdemeanors, had a treatment rate of 
1,287 per 100,000 residents and an incarceration rate of 309.

That's compared to California, with a treatment rate of 528, just 
above the incarceration rate of 439.

There is however, is one big difference: Some of the dozen states 
that consider minor possession to be a misdemeanor - such as Iowa and 
South Carolina - make the crime a felony on repeat offenses, an 
enhancement not included in Proposition 47.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who launched San Diego County's 
drug court program in 1996, said without that threat of prison time 
to motivate addicts, drug courts and other compelled treatment 
programs are doomed to failure.

"There's no incentive to go to treatment. They'd rather go to jail 
for 90 days and not have anything than come out of jail and fuss with 
the courts and probation and everything else," Dumanis said.

Dumanis said she sees coerced treatment as something like a parent 
disciplining a child.

"Teenagers, they want you to set the boundaries. If you let them 
push, they will keep pushing. ... A parent who tries to be a friend 
with a kid, you are just enabling the very behavior you want to stop."

Eric Davis, now a substance-abuse counselor, said a jail sentence of 
up to a year - the maximum punishment for a misdemeanor - wouldn't 
have been enough to make him kick methamphetamine for good in 2004.

"If I didn't have the prison sentence in front of me, I'd probably be 
dead," Davis said.

Anderson, the former prosecutor and executive director of 
Californians for Safety and Justice, said a possible year in jail is 
still no easy sentence, and Proposition 47 would help move drug cases 
through the court system faster than felonies while freeing free up 
jail space for those offenders who really do need to spend the 
maximum time there.

She further argues that the significant funds the measure would bring 
to treatment would be targeting the very population caught up in the 
cycle of addiction and low-level crime, even if it's not mandated.

"Police officers can't keep arresting the same addicts over and over 
again. If we can establish enough treatment, then we'd be able to 
minimize people going into criminal activity directly resulting from 
addiction," she said.

As it stands now, she said, the treatment options used by drug courts 
and Proposition 36 are underfunded and marked by waitlists.

"We have an epidemic of drug abuse. It's a fundamental problem, and 
we need to ask ourselves, whether someone is in the criminal justice 
system or not, do we have an adequate level of investment to address 
this problem?" Anderson asked.

One state that has prioritized funding treatment, in an unusual 
bipartisan collaboration, is Texas. When faced with the prospect of 
needing 17,000 more prison beds - at a whopping cost of $2.6 billion 
- - Texas lawmakers decided instead to find the money for programs that 
would reduce the need altogether. Their optimism appears to have paid 
off. Seven years later, recidivism has dropped, crime continues to 
decline and the Lone Star state has been able to shutter three prisons.

Texas did not reduce certain crimes to misdemeanors to get results, 
but criminal justice advocates say the windfall of funding treatment 
programs has shown success.

"The bottom line is it is working," said Vikrant Reddy, senior policy 
analyst at Right on Crime, a nonprofit advocating reform. "Texas has 
the lowest crime rate since 1968, and the state has done this while 
closing three prisons in the last three years. It's a pretty 
remarkable achievement in the minds of many. We're spending less and 
getting better results."

South Carolina State Sen. Gerald Malloy, not referring specifically 
to Proposition 47, said the nation has some tough questions to answer 
as it reshapes criminal justice policy.

"There's a need to see whether or not, in the grand scheme of things, 
if we are a lock-'em-up society or a rehabilitative society," said 
Malloy, who has headed criminal justice reforms in his state. "There 
has to be a way of meshing the two so you can be smart on crime and 
at the same time be tough on crime."


The initiative at a glance

What it does: Reduces six crimes - such as drug possession for 
personal use and forgery and theft under $950 - to misdemeanors, 
punishable by up to a year in jail; funnels savings in prison costs 
to substance abuse and mental health treatment, truancy prevention 
and victims' services programs.

Who supports it: Retired San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne; three 
district attorneys; California Catholic Bishops; and hip-hop stars.

Who opposes it: Majority of law enforcement officials, including 
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, San Diego Police Chief Shelley 
Zimmerman, Sheriff Bill Gore; crime victims' groups; and drug court 

Campaign spending: Supporters have raised $4.2 million through late 
September; the group opposing the proposition has raised $278,000 
during the same period.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom