24 Oct Overhaul in Prison Policy on the Horizon
By Alberto Retana
In 1971, President Richard Nixon identified drug abuse as a “public enemy number one” and declared a “War on Drugs.” Rather than treat addiction as a public health issue, Nixon framed addiction as a criminal issue, setting the stage for a failed policy.
The United States now has over 2.5 million people in prison — more prisoners than China, Iran or Russia. But with recent national, state and local efforts to reverse punitive policies, the tide may be turning.
California: An Incarceration Leader
Within the United States, California has been an incarceration leader. Since 1962, when California had the same crime rate as today, twenty-two new prisons have been built. California prisons are now bursting at the seams with an inmate population over five times higher than capacity.
As California teetered on the brink of a financial precipice, it stubbornly continued to spend over $62,000 a year per inmate, while simultaneously gutting education programs, human services and treatment programs.
Dismantling the Failed Policies of the “War on Drugs”
Most recently though, there has been a new emphasis on prevention, education and treatment versus incarceration. Below is a short list of key policies and laws that will potentially reverse the “Get tough on crime” trend.
- Assembly Bill 109: Re-Alignment, October 2011
The law amended about 500 criminal statutes to eliminate state prison time for low-level offenses. Instead, offenders are sentenced to county jail or to out-of-custody mandatory supervision. According to the California Department of Corrections, “[AB 109] is the cornerstone of California’s solution for reducing the number of inmates in the state’s thirty-three prisons.”
• Proposition 36, November 2012
The voter-approved measure revised the “Three Strikes Law” to impose life sentences only when the new felony conviction is “serious or violent.” It also authorizes resentencing for offenders currently serving life sentences if their third strike offense was not serious or violent.
• Mandatory Minimums, August 2013
The U.S. Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, non-violent drug offenses.
• U.S. Sentencing Commission, July 2014
The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to slash the sentences of 46,000 inmates serving time for drug offenses.
• Local Diversion Programs, October 2014
Municipalities and counties across the country are embracing “diversion programs” as an alternative to incarceration. Los Angeles County just approved a $20 million program to divert people with mental health disorders to treatment centers, rather than jails.
Up Next—Prop 47
The “War on Drugs” resulted in police sweeps, suppression and mass incarceration. It fueled racial profiling and antagonized community-police relations. It ripped thousands of families apart and bankrupted school budgets.
But California has yet another opportunity to continue to correct the course on corrections and support education over incarceration. This November, voters will decide the fate of Proposition 47. If passed, hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated Californians may have their records expunged, 10,000 state inmates may be released, and $1 billion dollars will be redirected to education and treatment over the next five years. Let’s make history. Visit www.unitedforprop47.com to get more information on how you can volunteer for Prop 47.
Retana is the Executive Vice President at Community Coalition.