Mean or sober?

Proposition 5 opponents say we can’t afford to rehabilitate non-violent drug offenders. Supporters say we can’t afford not to.

“Nobody wants to be a drug addict,” says Prop. 5 supporter Lou Martinez, substance-abuse counselor at The Effort and a former drug addict.

“Nobody wants to be a drug addict,” says Prop. 5 supporter Lou Martinez, substance-abuse counselor at The Effort and a former drug addict.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Kari Westerman is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and former SN&R intern. If you’re a local college student interested in an editorial internship with SN&R, please contact us at (916) 498-1234.

Next to Proposition 8, the politically and emotionally charged gay-marriage initiative, Proposition 5 seems peripheral, an afterthought. However, in terms of financial impact and public safety, the initiative may be the sleeper of the season.

Prop. 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, would significantly increase state funding to substance-abuse programs for nonviolent drug offenders. Depending upon which side you ask, that could either save the state billions in the long term, or throw billions down the drain and endanger public safety.

By 2010, the measure would allocate at least $460 million annually to treatment programs for those who commit nonviolent, drug-related crimes. This builds on the $120 million—later reduced to $108 million—allocated for the same purpose by Prop. 36, passed by California voters in 2000.

Prop. 5 would make many changes to the current criminal-justice and drug-rehabilitation system, including implementing a three-track system that would place offenders in a category of treatment and supervision relative to the severity of their criminal history. It would also provide money for a juvenile drug-treatment program.

The list of opponents reveals some surprising partners—consider Martin Sheen, Dolores Huerta and the California District Attorneys Association—who argue that Prop. 5 would decrease parole terms and lessen the severity of punishment, resulting in higher crime rates and more widespread drug use. Under Prop. 5, offenders would be diverted from jail into treatment until they fail their fifth stint in rehab.

“In order for folks to succeed in treatment and be motivated to succeed, there has to be appropriate consequences and motivation which, when necessary, translates into jail for not complying with the rules of the program and not abstaining,” said Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully.

Like many of its opponents, Scully also sees Prop. 5 as a strain on an already stressed state budget with little chance for subsequent modification, requiring a four-fifths vote of the state Legislature.

“It is very risky, and that is because the financial implications are completely unknown,” said Kevin Spillane, a “No on 5” campaign spokesman.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office projects that operating costs could exceed $1 billion annually, but in the long term, it could also save $1 billion annually by diverting offenders away from California’s notoriously overcrowded prisons into treatment. In other words, the program could eventually pay for itself.

Supporters of Prop. 5 include the California Nurses Association and billionaire George Soros, who tout the success of Prop. 36 as evidence the state will save money by rehabilitating offenders and transforming them into productive, taxpaying members of society instead of locking them up in prison at a high cost to taxpayers.

“Prop. 5 will save voters money,” said Dr. Jonathan Porteus, director of clinical services at The Effort, which administers mental-health and social services to the community and treats many Prop. 36 clients. “By investing in treatment, we will bring down the cost of corrections and the long-term costs to society incurred when we don’t treat people, when we just warehouse them or don’t address the things that underlie their addiction.”

According to Porteus, the number of clients who successfully complete Prop. 36 treatment programs is about 35 percent.

“If you want 100 percent success, I’m sorry, I don’t have a proposition that will give you that,” he said. “But if you want something that is quite effective compared to most change processes that people deal with, Prop. 36 has been effective.”

However, opponents claim that Prop. 36, which would be greatly expanded under Prop. 5, has been disastrous and is a threat to public safety.

“[Offenders] can continue to use drugs or possess drugs, yet they can’t be put in jail for being under the influence of drugs,” Scully said. “This poses a serious threat to our community, because people who should be going to jail will not be going to jail.”

Lou Martinez knows firsthand how effective Prop. 36 has been and fully supports Prop. 5. Martinez is a Prop. 36 treatment graduate who is now a substance-abuse counselor at The Effort. He graduates from Sacramento State next spring.

“Now that I’m clean, I am graduating from college, I pay taxes and I vote,” Martinez said.

After 10 years battling his addiction and bouncing in and out of jail, Martinez claims that it was only through the treatment he was offered under Prop. 36 that he was able to get and stay clean.

“If fear of locking someone up and punishing them was enough to make somebody quit, then they wouldn’t be sitting at my desk,” he said. “Nobody wants to be a drug addict.”