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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...

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Supporters point to the success of Proposition 36, The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, which was passed by over 61% of California voters in 2000. This measure provided millions of dollars to treat nonviolent drug offenders, with over 36,000 people entering treatment each year, and has saved the state almost $2 billion to date. Proponents also note the unjust racial disparities that exist in drug sentencing nationally -- in May of this year, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting that black men were 11.8 times more likely than white men to enter prison on drug charges, despite similar rates of use. And 54 percent of all Americans entering state prisons with a new drug offense were blacks. The same report showed that harsher prison conditions usually result in more violent post-release criminal behavior.

How much would Proposition 5 cost?

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Proponents of the measure say that Prop 5 would save the state money at a time when California is dealing with a budget crisis. They point to California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office, which estimates a cost of $1 billion per year for these new programs; a savings of $1 billion per year for diversion from prison to treatment programs; and one-time savings of at least $2.5 billion from constructing fewer prisons (link to pdf of report). Opponents cite the increased bureaucracy involved and note the unknown fiscal effect on expenditures for counties.

Who supports Proposition 5? California Democratic Party, League of Women Voters of California, California Nurses Association, California Society of Addiction Medicine, California Academy of Family Physicians, California Federation of Teachers, National Council of La Raza, California Labor Federation, NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, Homeless Health Care Los Angeles, among others. Individuals who support the proposition include George Shultz (former US Secretary of State and current chairman of Governor Schwarzenegger’s Council of Economic Advisors) and George Soros, billionaire and founder of the Open Society, who has pumped more than 1.4 million dollars into the proposition. The Drug Policy Alliance Network sponsored the proposition.

What do opponents think? Opponents state that this proposition is not about rehabilitation, and that it serves as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card to drug offenders and drug dealers. They have referred to the proposition as the Drug Dealers Bill of Rights. They believe that those who kill or hurt others while under the influence of alcohol or drugs would be siphoned into treatment programs instead of being punished for the crimes they committed. Instead of short-circuiting the revolving door in and out of prison for nonviolent drug offenders, opponents believe this measure would create an “express lane” for drug dealers to get back onto the streets. They also point to increased bureaucracy created at costs of hundreds of millions, and that costs would be shifted from the state to the counties.

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Who opposes Proposition 5? An impressive array of groups oppose Prop 5, including former California governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD), 32 California District Attorneys, California Chamber of Commerce, California Narcotics Officers Association, California Police Chiefs Association, California Peace Officers’ Association, D.A.R.E. America, National Drug-Free Workplace Alliance, and a number of others. The LA City Council also recently opposed the proposition. Individuals who oppose the proposition include Martin Sheen – a top donor and co-chair of No on Prop 5, and most recently, John Walters (the National Drug Control Policy Director aka the U.S. “Drug Czar”), among others.

For more information:

Yes on Prop 5 campaign and the money they have raised and spent.

No on Prop 5 and the and the money they have raised and spent.

California Voter information on Proposition 5.

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Photo credits:
"I took Five" photo by N-ino via Flickr.
Prison image by tomsaint11via Flickr.