The passage of Proposition 47 in California reduced felonies for low-level crimes like drug possession to misdemeanors thereby decreasing prison time from several years to up to a year in jail instead. The intention of Prop. 47 was to use the money saved from incarcerating drug offenders to rehabilitating them in programs for both substance abuse and mental illness. Nearly 40% of inmates in city jails suffer from a mental illness.
However, the new law has had the effect of changing the calculus of Drug Courts, a program started in Los Angeles in the 1990s. Drug Court, which has been an alternative to prison sentences for people with addictions, provides substance abuse treatment for defendants with low-level felony drug or theft cases. If a participant flunks out of the treatment program, he or she is incarcerated with a felony. Studies have shown that Drug Court works: there is less recidivism among California drug court participants than among non-drug court mandated treatment. Doug Marlowe, of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, states that it’s unrealistic to expect addicts to sign on to the program without a felony hanging over their heads.
So California is left with a dilemma. Will Prop. 47 lead to more effective treatment or less? Supporters of Prop. 47 argue that the initiative will ensure that treatment beds are available for addicts who want them, not those who are trying to avoid incarceration. Graduates of Drug Court state that treatment while in jail treatment centers (or “pods”) changed their lives, a testimony to the importance of treatment whether in or out of jail.
It seems that the early result of the passage of Prop. 47 has been to let low-level drug offenders out of prison but there has been no corresponding increase in treatment facilities and professional staff with the knowledge, skills or credentials needed to provide the full range of evidence-based services, including medication and psychosocial therapy. It was the intent of the voters of Prop 47 to support the creation of effective treatment facilities and housing for the mentally ill and those who suffer from substance abuse. For prison reform to work as intended, the state needs to focus on and expedite this part of Prop. 47.