Thursday, August 12, 2004
<> ><>>More than seven million adults in the United States are either behind bars, on probation or parole. That’s almost three percent of Americans in some slot of the court system, according to a recent report from the US Department of Justice.
In 2000, California voters approved a measure intended to unclog a state prison system that had become backed up with non-violent drug offenders. The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000, known as Proposition 36, was passed by a 61 percent majority. (Monterey County passed it by nearly 65 percent.)
Although it faced strong opposition from one of the state’s most powerful political lobbies—the corrections officers union—the public recognized the need to treat, not punish, those with substance abuse problems.
Under Prop. 36, $120 million a year is funneled out of the state general fund and into drug treatment programs, administered through the courts and public health departments. It gives judges the option of sending drug offenders into treatment—with set conditions for success—rather than just prison or probation.
When Prop. 36 was passed, around 24,000 Californians were being sent to prison every year for non-violent drug crimes. Some 53,000 offenders were eligible for the program as soon as it was enacted.
It was predicted that implementation of the measure would free up as many as 12,000 prison beds for more dangerous offenders.
At roughly $30,000 per inmate, per year, prison is an expensive institution, and Prop. 36 was estimated to save the state $1.5 billion over its first five years.
The measure is up for renewal in 2006 and experts say it’s too early to declare the effort a success. A state-mandated annual report on the progress of Prop. 36, completed by researchers at UCLA will be released in the next few weeks. Report authors would not forecast the findings.