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Intro to Proposition 5 -- the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA)

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Several of California’s ballot propositions this year could have wide-ranging national ramifications. Among them is the less talked about Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA). This proposition aims to fundamentally reform California’s drug-control policy by providing resources for rehabilitation and treatment of drug users a priority of the prison and parole systems. Up to eighty percent of California’s prisoners have a substance use problem and most receive no treatment. The rationale behind Prop 5 is simple -- treating addiction and providing rehabilitation for nonviolent drug offenders is more humane and more cost-effective than simply imprisoning them, which currently costs over $10 billion a year. And the timing of Prop 5 is relevant -- California’s prisons are severely overcrowded (with more than 170,000 inmates in prisons that were built for 100,000) and the state’s prison health care system is so broken that a federal receiver has demanded billions from the state’s budget to overhaul the prison medical system.

California did not always carry this reputation. In the 1950’s through 1970’s, the state led the nation in rehabilitation, psychotherapy, research, and innovative education programs for inmates. Judges had greater power over lengths of sentences for inmates and parole boards were set up to decide if an offender had reformed and could be released. Over the years, California’s governors and legislature did away with this power of judges and parole boards, took rehabilitation out of the penal code, and passed more than 1,000 laws increasing mandatory prison sentences.

So what does Prop 5 intend to do? Prop 5 would provide system-wide reforms in regards to drug policy. It would create drug treatment and support programs for at-risk youth. It would provides court-supervised treatment programs for nonviolent drug offenders instead of sending them off to prison – a plan that would treat the underlying addictions, save thousands per year per offender, significantly reduce prison overcrowding, and ameliorate the cycle of nonviolent offenders going in and out of prison. Proponents point to costs of $3,000 to $10,000 per year per offender for outpatient treatment or residential treatment, versus $46,000 a year for imprisonment. Judges would have more case-by-case power to hold drug users accountable, and parole boards would be created to increase transparency and accountability. Inmates would be able to earn time off their prison sentences for participation and performance in rehabilitation programs. Furthermore, penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana would be reduced from an infraction instead of a misdemeanor...