With Passage Of Proposition 47, California Takes Huge Step To End Prison Overcrowding, Overzealous Drug War Enforcement

Among the barrage of 2014 Mid-Term Election stories you’ve heard over the past couple of days — including the seismic shift in power in Congress; the passage of legalized recreational pot in Oregon, Alaska, and D.C.; the various state-level amendments, propositions, and races — there’s a story that you may have missed: the passing of California’s Proposition 47.

Proposition 47 is aimed at reducing California’s prison overcrowding problem, according to The Atlantic, and with good reason. Conditions in the state’s overcrowded prisons are so deplorable that prisoners have brought multiple class-action suits, one of which, Plata v. Brown, made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled that California’s prisons were so overcrowded that they did, indeed, constitute cruel and unusual punishment, according to Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion.

“California’s prisons are designed to house a population just under 80,000, but at the time of the three-judge court’s decision, the population was almost double that. The State’s prisons had operated at around 200% of design capacity for at least 11 years. Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates. As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers. As many as 54 prisoners may share a single toilet.”

And while Proposition 47’s goal of easing California’s prison overcrowding is laudable, it’s the way that the problem is being tackled that is noteworthy. Prop 47 reduces for non-violent drug offenses, such as possession, to misdemeanors rather than felonies, the Los Angeles Times reports. This means that thousands of inmates in California prisons serving time for possession — even possession of crack, meth, or heroin — are eligible for immediate release.

In other words, Proposition 47 addresses the issue of prison overcrowding by going straight for its original cause: The War on Drugs. California now treats drug use, thanks to Proposition 47, as a disease to be treated, rather than a crime to be punished. And the new law backs up that sentiment with real action: the money that would otherwise be spent on mass incarceration — estimated to be in the hundreds of millions per year — will be funneled toward drug treatment and prevention programs.

Scaling back the War on Drugs in California is a laudable starting point, but it doesn’t go far enough. Addicts will still have to get their fixes in back alleys while looking over their shoulders, from a distribution system that relies largely on gang warfare, rather than from clinics that receive a product — tested for contaminants — from a legal and regulated distribution system. Still, a small step in the right direction is better than no step at all.

Beyond California, Proposition 47 could potentially indicate a seismic shift in how states prosecute the War on Drugs. Prior to Propsition 47, the states’ collective approach to the nation’s drug problem has been one of more laws, more enforcement, more prisons. If California’s experiment succeeds in reducing the state’s prison overcrowding problem, legislation similar to Proposition 47 may soon be coming to your state, and none too soon.

[Image courtesy of: Understanding Government]