With the Santa-Monica based Campaign for a New Drug Policy (CNDP) (http://www.drugreform.org) successful in obtaining the signatures necessary to place its Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act initiative on the California state ballot in November, attention is now turning to the proposal's prospects for passage.
The initiative has been largely bankrolled by a trio of big-spending drug reformers. Hungarian-born financier George Soros, University of Phoenix President John Sperling and Peter Lewis of the Cleveland-based Progressive Insurance Company kicked in most of the $1 million spent in the signature gathering phase of the campaign.
The initiative would mandate treatment rather than prison time for first- and second-time drug possessors and nonviolent parole violators. There are currently some 20,000 nonviolent drug possession offenders in California prisons.
Analysts with the state legislature say the initiative, if passed, would save the state between $100 and $150 million per year by reducing the prison and jail population. In addition, the initiative would generate a one-time savings of nearly half a billion dollars in foregone prison construction costs.
In the opinion of interested observers surveyed by DRCNet, the most formidable opposition to the initiative will come from the politically potent and deep-pocketed prison guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association (CCPOA).
"They are the 800-pound gorilla of California politics," said CNDP's Dave Fratello. "They are the only force that matters on the other side," he said, "and they have the capacity to put six or seven figure sums into the campaign."
"Virtually no political body in California will stand up to them," said David Macallair of the Justice Policy Institute. "They are perceived to be law enforcement and they have a lot of money and they spend it lavishly."
"If you oppose them," Macallair continued, "they will label you soft on crime and anti-victims."
Jeff Thompson, CCPOA's legislative lobbyist, confirmed that the union's political action committee had voted to oppose the initiative and will be spending "serious money to deal with these out-of-state liberals," but Thompson said no decision had yet been reached on funding levels.
The CCPOA has certainly spent serious money in the past, and has been extremely effective in getting what it wants. In the last twenty years, and particularly under the leadership of current union president Don Novey, the union has benefited greatly from the California prison boom. It has seen its membership increase to 26,000 guards, who are the highest paid prison guards in the nation.
But CCPOA has not only benefited from the boom, it helped create it. In 1990, the union broke ranks with the rest of organized labor and contributed more than $1 million to the law and order campaign of Republican Governor Pete Wilson. The union, in cahoots with the National Rifle Association, also bankrolled the "three strikes" movement in the mid-1990s. It continues to provide financial support to the powerful California crime victims' movement.
In 1998, the union gave $2.5 million to the campaign of Democratic Governor Gray Davis, who remains a staunch drug warrior. While he has not yet taken a position on the initiative, all indications are that he will join the prison guards in opposition. In a move that appalled Democratic legislators, he recently announced plans to revive an expiring bill from the Wilson era that slaps a six-month drivers' license suspension on minor drug offenders.
CCPOA takes umbrage at any suggestion it is motivated by anything as tawdry as economic self-interest. "This is a public safety issue," said Thompson, "but the initiative is going to try to sell itself on our backs. They're going to try to make us the issue."
University of California-Berkeley criminologist Franklin Zimring laughed out loud when asked if the union should be taken at its word. "Good god, no," he exclaimed. "It's really very simple: We're talking about a lot of prisoners and a lot of guard jobs."
But, the initiative's supporters say, the union faces some risks in opposing the reforms. "The CCPOA is virtually unknown to the public at large," noted CNDP's Fratello, "and they will introduce themselves to the voters in the context of this campaign and their opposition to reducing the growth of the prison system."
"This will define them in voters' minds as behemoths like the trial lawyers or the insurance companies, who have only their own interests in mind."
Fratello explained that even with the initiative, the prison system will continue to grow and the guards will not lose jobs, they just won't increase as quickly. "Only if they are concerned about the long-term expansion of the union can they see this as a threat," he said.
CCPOA appears unconcerned about potential political risks; in fact, it has played a leading role in the formation of an anti-initiative alliance called Californians United Against Drug Abuse, which is located in the offices of Ray McNally Temple Associates, a political consulting firm. McNally Temple also consults for CCPOA.
According to CCPOA's Thompson, other members of Californians United include the California district attorney's association, the narcotics officers' association and a grouping of drug court judges.
Besides law enforcement organizations, the anti-initiative movement has received funding from San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos, who, the Washington Times reports, has kicked in $100,000 to block the measure.
Still, Fratello said, initiative organizers are optimistic. "We started out with two-thirds support and we have the funding to take this to the wire." CNDP gained even more reason for optimism with the release yesterday of a Field poll indicating 64% of voters support the initiative, with only 20% opposed.