California voters are rarely given the chance to vote for an initiative that addresses a problem that many thought was unsolvable. Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, provides the opportunity for voters to bring change to the state's crumbling and bankrupt criminal justice system in a manner that cannot be achieved within the special-interest-dominated world of Sacramento.
Prop. 5 is the only initiative on the November ballot that is slated to preserve state funds and save taxpayers' money—at least $2.5 billion, according to the state's Legislative Analyst. A 2007 bipartisan report authored by the Little Hoover Commission, entitled "Solving California's Corrections Crisis: Time is Running Out," stated that "30 years of tough on crime politics has not made the state safer" because of our failure to implement strategies that reduce the offender's likelihood to re-offend. Prop. 5 is a three-pronged effort to improve public safety by bringing balance to California's criminal-justice system.
The first element of Prop. 5 is its mandate to create a system of care for youth involved with substance abuse. Under this initiative, counties will be provided financial resources to establish a modern system of drug treatment. The second area addressed by Prop. 5 is treating nonviolent adult drug offenders after their arrest. Many county-run drug treatment services are disjointed and poorly funded, which reduces their potential effectiveness. Prop. 5 creates a coordinated and unified continuum of services that gives judges greater flexibility and broader controls.
If an offender commits a nonviolent drug offense, Prop. 5 states that treatment intervention should be a priority. If the offense is a nonviolent non-drug offense but the judge determines that substance abuse was the root cause, Prop. 5 gives courts the flexibility to use treatment as an alternative to, or in conjunction with, incarceration. By offering more choices, the initiative eliminates the situation where judges must rely on a single treatment option or impose incarceration—an approach long deemed a failure by addiction experts.
Perhaps the most important element of Prop. 5 is the establishment of rehabilitative services in the parole system. Today, inmates are routinely returned to the community with limited resources and few opportunities. Lacking both support and incentives, they soon fall back on old patterns. When offenders violate their parole, they are typically returned to prison, where they serve a mere five months before they are again released. Under Prop. 5, this failed one-dimensional system will be replaced by an array of sanctions and treatment options primarily operated at the local level. Interventions will range from incarceration to residential and nonresidential drug treatment. The initiative also mandates that higher levels of parole resources and supervision be devoted to higher risk parolees.
Prop. 5 offers voters a rare opportunity to bring change that is long overdue and that will advance the public safety interests of all Californians. The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that offers policy analysis, program development, and technical assistance in the criminal justice field. For more information, please visit www.cjcj.org.
This commentary was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle and later reprinted on AlterNet.