California Is Broke -- You Still Have the Right to Avoid Prison

Santa Cruz just became the latest county to announce it would “end” CA's Proposition 36 treatment-instead-of-incarceration program for low-level drug offenses because of a lack of funding. This terminology is confusing and misleading – even for those who should know better.

Proposition 36, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, was approved by 61% of California voters in 2000 – and it can only be undone by the voters. That is, it doesn’t “end” simply because the state and county aren’t funding alcohol and drug treatment.

Counties that deny Prop 36 participants access to adequate drug treatment, such as by providing support groups (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous) rather than licensed care, provide grounds for each defendant to bring suit. Just as importantly, California courts simply cannot remand people to jail or prison for a petty drug offense if that defendant is eligible for and opts into probation under Prop 36.

This is good news for California taxpayers.

According to UCLA research, Prop. 36 has helped reduce the number of people incarcerated for personal drug possession by 40% (or 8,000 people), saves $2.5-4 for every dollar invested (over $2 billion so far), diverted 36,000 people into treatment a year when funded, and has had no negative impact on crime trends. If those 8,000 people were still in prison, taxpayers would spend an additional $400 million on corrections this year alone.

California taxpayers are saving money by sending fewer people to state prison for drug possession, so it’s hard to understand why Sacramento is moving us back to a time when prison was the primary response to petty drug possession and treatment was not available. It’s even more disheartening to realize that we may already be there.

Prop 36 has slowed corrections growth by removing $400 million in annual costs, but not a penny of that has gone into treatment. State funding for Prop 36 treatment fell from a peak of $145 million in 2007/8 to nothing in 2010. The governor has proposed no new funding for the program in 2011. It’s a simple equation: the less funding available, the less treatment offered. This used to mean longer waiting lists to enter a treatment program (months long in some cases); now it means you may never get treatment.

Despite the success of Prop 36, California still incarcerates 9,000 people for petty drug possession at an annual cost to taxpayers of $450 million. It’s not entirely clear why they’re there, but sadly it’s probably because they have a drug problem. That’s what happens when you reduce access to treatment. Ironically, few if any of them are receiving behind-bars treatment, which has also grown scarcer in recent years.

So, while such “progressive” states as Texas, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, South Carolina and Oklahoma implement policies to divert people convicted of petty drug offenses from prison, California is doing the opposite.


The only part of the state budget likely to escape any cuts this year is corrections spending, which increased from $4 billion in 2000 to over $9 billion in 2010. In contrast, the governor has proposed an immediate $1 billion cut to the already devastated education system and a 21.5% reduction in health and human services. The governor says he’ll reduce spending on corrections over time, just not now. But there’s no reason to wait.


By making even small changes to the front end – that is, who we send to prison – California can reduce prison spending and protect public safety. By making drug possession a misdemeanor, for example, the state could safely cut prison spending by $450 million per year, and eliminate the barriers to success that currently follow a felony conviction. If it also changed penalties for people convicted of drug possession for sale (most of which involve selling to support one’s own habits or to share with friends), the state would reduce prison costs by another $500 million annually. Some of that savings could go to reducing the budget deficit; some could go toward restoring the state’s drug treatment system.


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