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Californians Can Save Money and Lives by Voting Yes on Prop 5

Jag Davies,
Drug Law Reform Project
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October 29, 2008

(Originally posted on Open Left.)

This Tuesday, California voters will decide the fate of Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offenders Rehabilitation Act (NORA). If it passes, NORA will shift California away from a criminal justice-oriented approach to substance abuse and toward a health-based approach, primarily by providing drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

NORA builds on the success of Proposition 36, passed in 2000 with 61 percent of the vote, which has saved California taxpayers over $1.5 billion and diverted hundreds of thousands of Californians from incarceration to treatment.

NORA would also transform California’s dysfunctional prison system. The independent Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) calculates that NORA would reduce the state prison and parole populations by at least 40,000 in just a few years. Since the late 1980s, the state’s prison population increased by 75 percent to over 170,000— nearly three times faster than the general adult population. Meanwhile, the number of incarcerated nonviolent offenders skyrocketed from 20,000 to 70,000. Since 2000, despite some reduction in prison population growth thanks to Prop 36, annual prison costs have grown 50 percent to over $10 billion— about 10 percent of the state budget, the equivalent of the state’s spending on its public universities.

The LAO calculates that NORA would generate $2.5 billion in taxpayer savings in prison construction costs, in addition to lowering incarceration costs by $1 billion each year. These resources could be used for healthcare, education and addressing the state’s gaping $16 billion-plus budget deficit.

All this compassion and common sense is just too much for President Bush’s drug czar, John Walters, who has been using federal taxpayer dollars to visit California to campaign against NORA. Naturally, California’s powerful prison guards union has also joined the fray, recently pledging a million dollars for a last-ditch opposition effort. Opponents of NORA, like previous opponents of Prop 36, are desperately trying to stoke fears that this decrease in incarceration would lead to an outbreak of violent crime. Yet, since Prop 36’s passage, California’s violent crime rate has decreased at a greater rate than the national average.

If you have friends or family in California, you can help by sending them an e-card from the ACLU’s ballot initiative action page.

If NORA passes, it will:

  • Expand drug treatment diversion programs and reduce reliance on incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Specifically, NORA requires the state to expand and increase funding and oversight for individualized treatment and rehabilitation services for nonviolent drug offenders and parolees. It reduces criminal consequences of nonviolent offenses by mandating a three-tiered probation with treatment and by providing for case dismissal and/or sealing of records after probation. The measure permits offenders who have failed to complete Track I to be shifted to Track II and then to Track III, where they face escalating sanctions, leading ultimately to incarceration as a last resort. Critically, NORA allows funding for “harm reduction” drug treatment programs, such as methadone maintenance, sterile syringe exchange and programs that are not solely based on an abstinence-only treatment model. In addition, NORA sets up a new county-operated program for nonviolent youth under age 18 who are at risk for committing future drug offenses. For those who do end up behind bars, NORA also allows inmates to earn additional time off their prison sentences for participation and performance in rehabilitation programs.
  • Modify parole supervision procedures and expand prison and parole rehabilitation programs. NORA increases the maximum parole period from three years to five years for any offender whose most recent prison sentence was for a violent or serious felony— but shortens parole for nonviolent drug offenses, including sales, and for nonviolent property crimes. NORA requires that parole violations be divided into technical violations, misdemeanors and felonies, and generally prohibits certain parolees from being returned to state prison for technical or misdemeanor violations (such as failing drug tests). All prison inmates would be required to be provided rehabilitation services beginning at least 90 days prior to their release date. In addition, a Parole Reform Oversight and Accountability Board would be created and given the authority to review, direct and approve rehabilitation programs, and to set state parole policies.
  • Reduce penalties for marijuana possession. NORA would make the possession of less than 28.5 grams of marijuana by an adult or minor an infraction (similar to a traffic ticket) rather than a misdemeanor (as under current law). Adults would be subject to a $100 fine; minors would not be subject to a fine but would be required to complete a drug education program. Money collected under these fines would be deposited into a special fund for the youth programs created by NORA.

NORA is an unprecedented opportunity to make a crucial difference in hundreds of thousands of lives and promote alternatives to the wasteful and counterproductive war on drugs. To learn more about NORA, check out

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