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Stop Filling Prisons, California -- Advocates to Take Sentencing Reform Case to Voters

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #524)

California's prison system is in crisis. With some 172,000 inmates, the state's prison system is second only to the federal system in size, and its budget has ballooned by 79% in the last five years to nearly $8 billion annually. Still, the system is vastly overcrowded and faces two federal class-action suits seeking to cap inmate populations because overcrowding is resulting in the state not delivering constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care.

overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (from
In December, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was considering a plan to release some 22,000 nonviolent inmates early in response to the festering crisis. But that one-shot approach would not deal with the systemic problems and policies that created the prison crisis in the first place.

Now, after years of inaction in Sacramento in the face of the crisis, a well-funded initiative campaign that would result in a seismic shift in California sentencing and prison policies, especially when it comes to drug offenders and those whose offenses are related to their problematic drug use, has gotten underway. Dubbed the Non-Violent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA), the initiative would dramatically expand the treatment and diversion options made available under a previous reform initiative, Proposition 36, as well as reform parole and probation programs, and make simple marijuana possession an infraction instead of a misdemeanor.

About 35,000 California inmates, or about 20% of the prison population, are doing time for drug offenses. An unknown number, certainly in the thousands and possibly in the tens of thousands, are doing time for offenses related to their drug use. It is these offenders and their future brethren at whom the NORA initiative is aimed.

Sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Santa Monica-based Campaign for New Drug Policies, the people who engineered the successful Prop. 36 campaign, the NORA initiative would:

  • Create a multi-track diversion program for adult offenders. Track I provides for treatment for nonviolent drug possession offenders with a plea held in abeyance during treatment. For those who wash out of Track I, Track II provides Prop 36-style treatment after conviction, with graduated sanctions for probation violations, including eventual jail time. Track III is an expansion of existing drug court programs, with stronger sanctions than the other tracks. Judges would have the discretion to use Track III not only for drug offenders, but for any non-violent offenders whose crimes are linked to their drug use. Track III would be mandatory for those identified as "high-cost offenders" (five arrests in the past 30 months). The initiative would fund the diversion and treatment program at $385 million per year.

  • Create drug treatment programs for youth. NORA would invest about $65 million a year to build a prevention and treatment program for young people where none currently exists.
  • Require California prisons to provide rehabilitation programs to all exiting inmates at least 90 days before release and for up to a year after release at state expense.
  • Allow nonviolent prisoners to earn sentence reductions with good behavior and by participating in rehabilitation programs.
  • Cut parole periods for qualifying nonviolent offenders to between six and 12 months, instead of the current up to three years. Early discharge from parole could be gained with completion of a rehabilitation program.
  • Make simple marijuana possession an infraction (ticketing offense) instead of a misdemeanor.

Not only would NORA mean freedom for thousands of nonviolent drug and drug-related offenders, it would also save California billions of dollars. Prop. 36 is estimated to have saved at least $1.3 billion in five years by diverting offenders to treatment, and the California Legislative Analyst's Office projects that NORA could generate a billion dollars a year in savings for the prison system, as well as obviating the need for a one-time prison-building outlay of $2.5 billion.

Paid canvassers for NORA are already hitting the streets in California. They have until April 21 to gather some 435,000 valid signatures to put the measure on the November ballot. NORA will make that goal, organizers vowed.

"We've just announced this to our members and started gathering signatures," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the Southern California office of the Drug Policy Alliance Network. "We're very excited. It looks like the largest sentencing and prison reform in American history will be on the November ballot."

"This is Prop 36 on steroids," said Dale Gieringer, executive director of California NORML. "If it passes, this will lead to a comprehensive rewrite of all of California's laws regarding sentencing, probation, and parole for nonviolent, drug-related offenses. And this is a professional campaign. The measure will be on the ballot in November," he flatly predicted.

"Prop. 36 has been such a success, it has been extensively studied and proven, but the biggest problem is that it isn't big enough," said Dooley-Sammuli. "Combined with the difficulty of getting any prison reform through and of even obtaining adequate funding for existing reforms because of the impasse in Sacramento -- we've seen so many prison reforms die there -- we thought we really needed to put this on the ballot for stable funding, more treatment, and more diversion," she said.

"But NORA is not just about expanding Prop. 36," Dooley-Sammuli was quick to point out. "This is primarily a prison and sentencing reform effort. It brings common sense solutions to the problem of over-incarceration in California, especially the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders in this state."

"The state has been incredibly reluctant and negligent in addressing the whole problem of nonviolent prisoners," said Gieringer. "Every effort to extricate drug offenders from the prison system has been seen as a political hot potato and has gone nowhere. Sentencing reform is political poison in Sacramento, yet we have this simmering prison crisis here in California."

If the politicians refuse to act, said Gieringer, it is time to take the issue directly to the voters. "This initiative is very justified because of the negligence of California's political class in not dealing with these issues," he said. "In fact, it is overdue, and now we the people have to try to come to grips with the failure of our political leaders to act. And I think we have the public on our side. The polling on this has been very favorable. Most people think nonviolent drug offenses should be handled with treatment, not prison."

"We have federal judges considering whether to take over the entire state prison system," said Dooley-Sammuli. "We don't have solutions coming out of Sacramento. We have very real budget problems that mean we can't afford to keep spending what we are on incarceration. NORA reallocates state spending from incarceration to treatment and rehabilitation, so we will end up with substantial savings over time," she predicted.

Gov. Schwarzenegger's move to release some prisoners early is necessary, but not sufficient, said Dooley-Sammuli. What is needed is not one-shot fixes, but systemic reforms, she said. "NORA is not a one-time opening of the jailhouse gates," said Dooley-Sammuli, "This is about systemic change in our sentencing and parole practices. This is not radical; it's common sense. This is not soft on crime; this is smart on crime. NORA will allow us to get past the politicking and get some solutions."

At this point early in the campaign season, there is no organized opposition, but that is almost certain to change. Too many powerful groups, from prosecutors to prison guards, benefit from the status quo, and fear-mongering on crime issues is a perennial favorite among politicians.

"The question is whether there will be any well-funded political opposition," said Gieringer. "Then there might be a real fight. But we haven't seen an opposition committee form yet. That's the real question mark."

NORA organizers have done their best to blunt opposition at the early stages by bringing potential opponents into the process, said Dooley-Sammuli. "We made many, many efforts to make this a collaborative process by reaching out to a wide variety of stakeholders. This has been a broad effort to bring in as many perspectives and sets of expertise as possible, and we've tried to make friends instead of foes," she said.

Coerced drug treatment is not the best of all possible worlds. But it's difficult to argue that drug law violators are better off in prison than in treatment. The NORA initiative will give California voters a chance to take a giant step in sentencing and prison reform and a small step toward true justice for drug users.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a retired cop. No, I didn't get fired. I had a full career and retired with full honors after 25 years.

During my career, I saw that this "war" on drugs is a complete joke. I always voice this opinion to my peers and the reaction was shock and disbelief.

This"war" would dry up if the money did. It never has done anyone any good by locking them up and it never will. Oh, wait, it does make criminals out of those that would have never gone down that path.

It's ruining the youth of this country.

Thu, 02/21/2008 - 10:07pm Permalink
Rhubarb Koznowski (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Me too. I now belong to LEAP (, a movement of present, former, and retired law enforcement professionals that are working to change this intolerable situation. I encourage you to go to our site and consider volunteering a little time. We are currently seeking workers to contact local media outlets for the purpose of scheduling interviews with LEAP speakers. Our staff includes retired cops, DEA officers, district attorneys, lawyers, and other concerned people such as yourself. Please give us your help if you can. Thanks.

Thu, 02/28/2008 - 2:47pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently a HRSO sex offender Agent for State Parole. Anyone who doesn’t recognize the relationship between drug use and victimization of women and children is ill informed. Those who demonstrate that they will not comply with diversionary drug programs should be sent back to prison. As soon as the fear of punishment is gone, usage and victimization will go up. Most of these “recovery programs” are run by folks that are on the verge of “relapse” themselves.

Fri, 02/22/2008 - 12:35am Permalink
Giordano (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Sex offenders? That’s really interesting. Because I know someone who is a state certified clinical psychologist. And he has a great deal of experience treating sex offenders who remain locked up in state mental wards and prisons.

We’ve had many long discussions about the psychology of rapists, child molesters, etc., the basis for which is perverse beyond belief. At no time was any relevant correlation made between alcohol or drugs as any motivation for the crimes of sex offenders.

I shouldn’t have to explain the psychology of the sex offender to someone in your line of work. (No one on this site really wants to hear it, anyway). That anyone would be fooled by the common criminal’s lament that all was the fault of drugs or alcohol (and therefore not their own mistaken, sick, or twisted self) would make me suspect that you’re not really interested in your own line of work.

Seriously, if you’re involved in some domain of watchful control over any kind of sex offender, you need to seek out an expert psychologist for an information upgrade. The career you save could be your own.


Fri, 02/22/2008 - 2:18am Permalink
mlang52 (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Are any of those sex offenders, you mention, nineteen year od guys who had sex with their 15 year old girl friends?! It does not surprise me that someone, with your authority, also wants to maintain the status quo of destroying young peoples' lives! But, I cannot disagree about the court ordered treatment programs. They are a joke! But, as long as the rich can buy their kids' ways out, of the system, no one will worry about the poor, (financially disadvantaged) kids. The system needs changed, drastically!

Fri, 02/22/2008 - 1:01pm Permalink
Rhubarb Koznowski (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

There is no scientific correlation between drug usage and domestic violence or pedophilia. Yes, drugs are used by both these groups, but these offenses require no more of a reason than blaming poverty, television viewing, or use of milk.

I agree that fear of punishment may influence an individual's behavior, but I also believe that the lack of assistance, treatment, and support by society is much more of a factor. After all, very few people in jail ever thought they would be arrested.
The "lock 'em up" mentality that you espouse only serves to worsen the problem, not to provide a solution.

"He who joyfully marches in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice." -- Albert Einstein

Thu, 02/28/2008 - 3:10pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Expansion of the State Prisons System is going to be the frosting on the "Bankruptcy Cake" for the State Budget. The Prison Industry is not creating the pork that many politicians keep wishing for.

Building more prisons while we are in a major recession is stone cold crazy economics.

More businesses will move out of the State when their taxes are increased. More home forclosures are coming. Elizabeth Hill is crazy to think that senior citizens can pick up the tab for a failed State Budget.

Why not release low level inmates and disabled, dying inmates and reduce the cost of housing these individuals when they are no threat to the public safety. This tough on crime mind-set has proven to be very tough on the State Budget.
Start releasing inmates under AB 1539.

Fri, 02/22/2008 - 1:31pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The California Correctional Officers Union bought and paid for the last two Governors. In return they got the same status as benefits as 'real cops' and huge pay increases. Intent on hanging on to and expanding their gains, they have been instrumental in encouraging the fear mongering lies about the horrible danger that Californian's will be in if anyone is ever released from Prison. I worked in California law enforcement for over 20 years and has already been stated, the war on drugs is a farce and a lie. It's too bad that the citizens of California don't do their own fact checking before they buy into the lie. These prison guards will keep the prison population as high as they can no matter how much it costs or how it hurts other programs.

Drug addiction is a public health problem, it's a chronic disease. Harm reduction is the only way out of this mess but I am sure it will take bankrupting the state before gutless politicians will take a stand on this.

To HRSO Sex Offender Agent: I hope you are not trying to imply that drugs or alcohol turn people into molesters because if thats what you are inferring you really need to get a new job, that's the stupidest thing I have ever heard. Sex offenders 'might' have less control if they are under the influence, but to infer that a person not so inclined when sober would turn into a rapist or molester if they were under the influence..

Mon, 02/25/2008 - 4:26pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)


Attorney Gen. File #: 2007-064
California Cannabis Hemp & Health Initiative 2008

Legalization of Marijuana-Related Activities. The initiative provides that no per-son, individual, or corporate entity could be prosecuted for the possession, cultivation, transportation, distribution, or consumption of cannabis hemp, including hemp industrial products, hemp medicinal preparations, hemp nutritional products, and hemp religious or recreational products. All of these products use as an ingredient the hemp plant commonly referred to as cannabis or marijuana. This measure also provides that the manufacture, marketing, distribution, or sale between adults of equipment or accessories associated with the above products shall not be prohibited.

California Hemp Initiative Volunteers is looking for volunteer petition signature collectors

Results 1-10 of about 41,600 for vindictive santa clause .

prison guard's union

California Correctional Peace Officers Association
The California Prison system is the third largest penal system in the country, costing $5.7 billion dollars a year and housing over 161,000 inmates. Since 1980 the number of California prisons has tripled and the number of inmates has jumped significantly. In the past few years controversies involving prison expansion, sky-rocketing costs, and claims of mismanagement and inmate abuse have put the California prison system under heightened public scrutiny.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) is the California prison guards' union. In recent years the CCPOA has become a major player in California politics. Its political influence has grown to the point that it is widely considered to be one of the most powerful political forces in Sacramento. Its lobbying efforts and campaign contributions have greatly facilitated the passage of legislation favorable to union members.

Mon, 03/10/2008 - 5:06am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I am quite pleased that California is slowly and surely changing their laws concerning marijuana and other drugs. I hope this continues and I hope that not only marijuana becomes legalized but other drugs as well. There are many more pros than cons for legalizing drugs. I especially like that they are trying to make laws
that let non-violent drug offenders out of jail.

I want to be honest with all you people. I have been convicted of selling crack in another state which is not California. On a small level. 1/4 gram. I wasn't a big dealer. I just sold so I could get my own supply. I have since stopped selling and I rarely use crack. have never committed a violent crime nor have I been convicted of one.Actually I have never been convicted of any other crime. Right now I'm on the run for my drug conviction. It has been more than ten years and they still haven't caught me. I am a respected person in my community and I have a good job. I only have done positive things in my community. The only thing is that nobody knows that they are looking for me for running away from the system. I think I should be allowed to live my life and not have to worry about such things. I don't deserve to always be worried that someday I could go back to jail. I have never hurt anyone--on the contrary I have helped a lot of people. I hope someday I can stop running and live without the fear of being persecuted by the law. I say to all of you. Keep up the good work so that honest, non-violent people don't go to jail. I salute you all.

Thu, 07/24/2008 - 10:44pm Permalink

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