Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA), offers common-sense solutions to California’s prison overcrowding crisis. The measure will appear on the Nov. 4, 2008, statewide ballot. NORA’s major components are:
1 Treatment diversion programs for adults. NORA creates a unified system of care and provides $385 million per year to pay for drug treatment and related costs. Nonviolent drug offenders would be placed in one of three different levels of care and supervision, based on their criminal history and drug problem severity. NORA motivates participants to complete t reatment and rehabilitation through an appropriate mix of incentives, rewards, sanctions and consequences. Participants who fail at the lower levels could be moved up to the more intensive levels, or could be jailed for noncompliance. Completing the prescribed course of treatment can lead to the participant’s drug offense being dropped from his or her criminal record.
2 Prison system and parole reforms. NORA makes rehabilitation a real priority for the state prison system and restructures the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to further that goal. The measure creates a new post of Secretary of Rehabilitation and Parole to supervise the transition, and places a new “rehabilitation warden” at each facility. The measure saves prison beds by requiring local sanctions, not prison, to punish minor parole violations by nonviolent offenders. Parolees and former parolees would get rehabilitation services to help them stay clean and to return as productive members of society. An independent oversight panel would have authority over major aspects of implementation.
3 Youth programs. NORA commits about $65 million per year to drug treatment and other support programs for at-risk youth, creating a system of care for young people under the age of 18 where no services exist now. Additional money for youth treatment would come from fines paid for possession of marijuana, an offense which, for adults and for minors, would be reclassified from a misdemeanor to an infraction. Young people under the age of 18 would be required to attend a drug education class if found guilty of possessing marijuana.
Proposition 5 would sharply limit the incarceration of nonviolent offenders, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO). The LAO projects that the measure would require spending about $1 billion in total each year, offset by savings of $1 billion or more each year in prison and parole costs. According to the LAO, the state would see additional net savings of $2.5 billion over several years as prison-construction costs would be reduced by NORA’s reforms.
Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA), is directly derived from recommendations and research findings by numerous criminal justice and treatment experts, blue-ribbon commissions, academic researchers, and policy makers.
A New York Times editorial on Sarturday October 25th addressed the Calfornia prison disaster:
The mass imprisonment philosophy that has packed prisons and sent corrections costs through the roof around the country has hit especially hard in California, which has the largest prison population, the highest recidivism rate and a prison budget raging out of control.
According to a new federally backed study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, the state’s corrections costs have grown by about 50 percent in less than a decade and now account for about 10 percent of state spending — nearly the same amount as higher education. The costs could rise substantially given that a federal lawsuit may require the state to spend $8 billion to bring the prison system’s woefully inadequate medical services up to constitutional standards.
The solution for California is to shrink its vastly overcrowded prison system. To do so, it would need to move away from mandatory sentencing laws that have proved to be disastrous across the country — locking up more people than protecting public safety requires.
In addition, the state also has perhaps the most counterproductive and ill-conceived parole system in the United States. More people are sent to prison in California by parole officers than by the courts. In addition, about 66 percent of California’s parolees land back in prison after three years, compared with about 40 percent nationally. Four in 10 are sent back for technical violations like missed appointments or failed drug tests.
Later this year, the state is expected to begin testing a new system that redirects the lowest-risk drug addicts to treatment. But that will only work if the state and the counties dramatically expand treatment slots.
The heart of the problem is that California’s parole system is simply too big. Most states keep dangerous people behind bars or reserve parole supervision for the most serious offenders. California puts virtually everyone on parole, typically for three years.
Under this setup, about 80 percent of the parolees have fewer than two 15-minute meetings with a parole officer per month. That might be adequate for low-risk offenders, but it’s clearly too little time for serious offenders who present a risk to public safety.
A good first step would be to place fewer people on parole. The second step would be to reserve the most intensive supervision for offenders who present the greatest risk.
State lawmakers, some of whom are fearful of being seen as soft on crime, have failed to make perfectly reasonable sentencing modifications and other changes that the prisons desperately need. Unless they muster some courage soon, Californians will find themselves swamped by prison costs and unable to afford just about anything else.
Clearly Prop 5 would help addresses the issues raised in the New York Times poignant editorial. Vote for Prop 5!