Nonviolent Drug Offenders Should Not Be Taking Up Prison Beds

Few people know what it feels like to arrest a man. To hear the click of the handcuffs that so ominously foretells the loss of freedom, citizenship rights and personal potential for years to come.
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Few people know what it feels like to arrest a man. To hear the click of the handcuffs that so ominously foretells the loss of freedom, citizenship rights and personal potential for years to come. To know that while he's imprisoned, other far more dangerous criminals are getting away. And when that arrest is for drugs or other petty crimes, to know his imprisonment will neither help him kick his habit nor make his community any safer. Happily, Prop. 47 on the California ballot will bring more sense to our criminal justice priorities.

I have no problem with putting away a violent criminal for a long, long time. Rapists. Murderers. Bank robbers. Once upon a time, those were the only people we did lock up. Prison was a place for bad guys.

As the drug war has escalated, so too have the number and length of sentences of nonviolent prisoners jailed for felony drug possession. In 2013, as prisons across the state were being forced to release inmates to comply with a court order upheld by the Supreme Court, more than 4,200 Californians were incarcerated for mere possession of a controlled substance. Meanwhile, our drug treatment and prevention services remain woefully underfunded.

Fortunately, a sensible ballot measure put forth by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and retired San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne would change this. Prop. 47 will change certain drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors, reducing the prison population and using the savings to fund mental health and drug treatment programs, K-12 schools and crime victims. The state Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance estimate that the Act (which also reduces felonies for other nonviolent, nonserious crimes such as petty theft) will save hundreds of millions of dollars at both the state and county level.

Moreover, unlike the determinate sentencing laws that got us into this mess in the first place, the proposition takes into account individual circumstances so that the sentence is appropriate to the crime and individual. A thorough criminal background check will be conducted and a risk assessment produced so that we know that those who are threats to others will see consequences fit for their actions. But just as importantly, that those who are not threats don't serve lengthy sentences.

This is a matter of compassion and justice. Even if you don't sympathize with drug users, it's smart policy. Once incarcerated, users' prospects and those of their families, already often limited, instantly decrease. For the most part, when these folks enter jail, they're marginalized --disproportionately people of color and the poor -- but not violent or dangerous. But after months or years in custody, they become socialized to prison norms, where aggression is an asset and violence commonplace. Someone whose only crime is using a drug does not necessarily have any criminal tendencies, but when they come out of prison and can't find a job because of their record, many turn to crime, the only occupation they've been taught in prison. Almost two-thirds will re-offend within three years, clearly indicating that our current form of punishment is not a deterrent.

So who do these harsh drug laws benefit?

Certainly not those who suffer from substance addictions. The purity and potency is always unknown, making the likelihood of accidental poisoning or overdose much higher. Because of the criminalized culture surrounding drug addiction, police are generally unsympathetic. The person you see on the park bench with collapsed veins does not need a police officer or a judge or a prison guard. What that person needs is a physician and a psychologist.

Our communities certainly aren't the beneficiaries either, considering that a larger proportion of our populace is jailed than that of any other country in the world, including the most dictatorial and repressive regimes. That means thousands of children are growing up without one or more parents, some of whom will have to be put in foster care, where 50% will have chronic medical problems and 80 percent serious emotional issues.

These senseless laws that overcriminalize drug use were passed in haste amid a climate of fear. They benefit no one. Thankfully we have the power to change mistakes our elected leaders have made. Prop. 47 is an initiative written and supported by law enforcement officials to create a more compassionate approach to our community's drug issues than any harsh enforcement program ever could.

Stephen Downing is a retired LAPD deputy chief of police and a current board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials opposed to the war on drugs.

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