As someone who has worked in the field of substance abuse prevention and treatment for more than 30 years, I can say firsthand that the criminalization of drug possession and use has not stemmed the tide of substance abuse and addiction. Over the past three decades, felony sentencing and punishment—instead of intervention and treatment—have increased exponentially, creating a revolving door as Californians cycled in and out of the state corrections system.
On Tuesday, the passage of California’s Proposition 47—which changes the state’s sentencing laws for drug possession and other petty crime—represents a dramatic, positive shift from “tough on crime” to “smart on treatment.”
Known officially as The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act of 2014, Proposition 47 is a voter initiative that changes sentencing for low-level nonviolent crimes—including simple drug possession—to misdemeanors, making California the first state to decriminalize the possession of drugs like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines. Here’s the really great news: It requires the California Department of Finance to calculate Prop. 47’s annual savings to the state and transfer these funds to education (25%), victims’ services (10%), and mental health and substance abuse treatment services (65%).
We know that investment in treatment, rather than incarceration, is the right approach to substance use disorders. Study after study has shown that treatment works and is cost-effective. Every dollar spent on substance abuse treatment delivers a return of $12.00 or more in reduced incarceration costs. And it’s estimated that state prison reductions will generate between $750 million to $1.25 billion in savings over the next five years alone. By committing these funds to treatment, Proposition 47 will be making a better, smarter investment in California’s future and a real difference in the lives of people struggling with addiction.
While this is all reason to celebrate, it’s important to remember that ballot propositions are blunt instruments—they have a swift and dramatic impact, but they require commitment and change in many of our local and state systems. For example, Proposition 47 allows for the immediate resentencing and release of many people previously convicted of the infractions it covers. This is terrific. It’s just a little less terrific if many of the those people need housing and jobs—and most importantly, mental health or substance abuse treatment—but have no access to these services because the demand is greater than the current outpatient and residential capacity.
Getting the measure passed was the first step. Now begins the hard work of ensuring the proposition lives up to its promise. The Board of State and Community Corrections—the state government entity managing the funds—must work with local government, substance abuse and mental health partner agencies, licensing authorities, and providers to ensure access to the continuum of care for those who need it. This means releasing the funds quickly to create a network of services and a dedicated workforce.
Is there a lot of work to be done? Will the road be bumpy? Is there a lot of room for error? Yes, yes, and you bet. Charting a new course and getting new systems up and running are never easy. But when the status quo isn’t doing what it was created to do, the hard work is well worth it.
If you’re still unconvinced, consider what this law means beyond just the act of providing treatment. When I think of this law, I think of incarcerated parents’ children in foster care. I think about the guy who was caught shooting heroin and sent to prison, but then turned his life around by getting treatment while on parole—only to be unable to find employment afterward, because there’s nothing like a criminal record to bar him from his professional trade and scare employers. I think about the mom on parole who committed to treatment, took parenting classes, found a minimum wage job, and reunited with her children—but then found herself ineligible for housing and food assistance necessary to make ends meet.
Proposition 47 can be a real shot at improving shattered lives by helping families gain access to critical services and avoid the revolving door to prison. If our end goal in fighting the War on Drugs was to stop the scourge of substance abuse in our communities and to do everything we could to encourage people to become healthy, productive citizens, then today, we can lay down our arms and celebrate the passage of Proposition 47. Now, let’s roll up our sleeves for the work ahead.
Vice President and Director of Clinical Services
Phoenix House California