22 Oct New Ballot Initiative Proposes Prison Overhaul
By Fermin Vasquez
It’s Sunday morning in South Los Angeles. Gilbert Johnson walks to church holding his two-year-old child in his arms and his pregnant wife carries their one-year-old child. They are greeted by smiles and hugs. Then moments later, he walks to the pulpit to deliver a powerful sermon.
“In the eyes of the law, I may still have a criminal record,” he preaches, “but God has already forgiven me. He doesn’t hold who I used to be against me. He loves me. He loves us all.”
Johnson, now a licensed minister, was in and out of county jails for a decade for non-violent offenses and a history of substance abuse violations. He was charged with felonies for simple narcotics possession, multiple marijuana possessions and a DUI.
“I was not a bad kid, I was just making bad decisions,” states Johnson. “What I needed was alcohol and drug treatment, not just to be thrown in jail time after time.”
Johnson’s struggle is not unusual. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2004, one out of every six people was in state prison for crimes related to drug addiction. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also reported that 45 percent of prisoners have recently experienced mental illness. Numbers are higher for substance abuse disorders.
A broad coalition of community organizations, clergy, law enforcement and teachers are hoping that California will do things differently. If Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, passes this November, California will be the first state in the nation to end felony sentencing for simple drug possession and low-level, non-violent offenses. Karren Lane of Community Coalition in South L.A. is helping to build a groundswell of support to pass Prop 47.
“All I want to do is make my wife happy and my children proud.”
Community Organizer and South L.A. Resident
“This is about fixing a broken system,” Lane says. “We can continue to waste billions by locking people up for petty crimes and non-violent offenses or we can invest in smart and proven crime prevention strategies and drug treatment programs.”
The prison budget in California is now $9 billion. In fact, over the past thirty years, California has built twenty-two new prisons and only one public university. The state spends $62,000 a year to house an inmate in a state prison, but only $9,000 a year on a child in public school.
Former San Diego Chief of Police William Lansdowne says, “Clearly this approach is not working, and it’s costing us precious resources for law enforcement and public safety. I can’t tell you how many officers have expressed the frustration of arresting the same people over and over again for petty crimes, especially when mental illness or drug addiction is a factor.”
A growing body of research suggests that the criminal justice system serves merely as a warehouse, where people come out worse than they went in. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, each year, about 700,000 men and women are released from prison. Within three years, about two-thirds of them are re-arrested.
For California voters, Prop 47 could signify a turning point away from mass incarceration to investments in prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. For thirty-year police veteran Lansdowne, this new approach makes common sense.
“We absolutely must hold people accountable for their actions but what form that accountability takes must be based on what actually stops cycles of crime,” Lansdowne says. “Temporarily incapacitating someone with addiction or mental health problems is just pushing the pause button on the problem, instead of stopping it once and for all. That’s where the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act comes in.”
Prop 47 will dedicate 65 percent of its savings to mental health and drug treatment. Additionally, 25 percent of the savings will be shifted into K-12 school programs and another 10 percent to victim services.
“This smart approach is why I’ve joined fellow police veterans, district attorneys, crime victims, teachers, health professionals and many others to urge Californians to vote yes on Prop 47 this November,” states Lansdowne.
For Johnson, who is one of the estimated 5.3 million Americans who are denied the right to vote based on a past felony conviction, the passage of Prop 47 would give him the opportunity to fully reintegrate into society.
He says, “It would be a new beginning. I would no longer be denied a job because of my record. All I want to do is make my wife happy and my children proud.”
Vasquez is a Communications Specialist at Community Coalition.