11/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Prop. 5: Smarter, Cheaper Crime Policies

Besides the presidential race, California voters face another choice between change and more of the same on November 4. Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, asks voters to decide between squandering billions of dollars each year on the same old criminal justice policies, or voting Yes on 5 to change that system, save money, save lives and reduce crime.

If Prop. 5 passes, it could also send a signal to voters and legislators in every state that there is a better way to deal with addiction and nonviolent crime.

On many issues, California leads the nation. But on crime and prisons, the Golden State lags behind many others, with a costly and overburdened prison system that now consumes more than $10 billion each year.

At a time when our state is saddled by a multi-billion-dollar deficit, Prop. 5 is the only initiative on California's ballot that actually cuts government spending.

The state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst says Prop. 5 will reduce prison operating costs by $1 billion or more per year, and will save another $2.5 billion by avoiding new prison construction.

Prop. 5 achieves those savings by safely reducing prison overcrowding, and by offering treatment and rehabilitation to nonviolent youth and drug offenders. Sure, treatment costs money, too, but much less than incarceration, which runs at $46,000 per person per year.

There are a lot of people in the prisons running up that huge annual tab -170,000 people are crammed into California prisons built for 100,000. Since the state has been unable to reduce overcrowding, federal judges are now threatening to take over the prison system and impose a solution.

One reason for overcrowding is that we can't seem to keep former inmates from returning. Every month 10,000 people finish their state prison sentences and are released back into California's communities. Almost none of them have received any meaningful treatment or rehabilitation while behind bars. About 70% of them will be sent back to prison within three years, a rate that is twice the national average.

What's happening in California is the most extreme example of a national problem. According to the Pew Center on the States, the United States incarcerates 2.4 million people in its prisons and jails, or one in every 100 Americans -- by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. The United States has only 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's prisoners. Of those incarcerated, the overwhelming majority have substance abuse or mental health problems, especially nonviolent offenders. And an appallingly disproportionate number are people of color: one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars.

Clearly, the system is broken. Now is the time to fix it.

Prop. 5 is a system-wide reform. It starts by creating support services for young people struggling with drugs. Right now, California offers virtually no help for young people with substance abuse problems. Without treatment these youth are at much higher risk of becoming future criminals, fueling a pipeline straight to prison.

Next, Prop. 5 significantly expands access to treatment-instead-of-incarceration options for nonviolent drug offenders. These include drug courts and Proposition 36, a highly successful program passed by 61% of voters in 2000. In just seven years, Prop. 36 has graduated 84,000 people, saved taxpayers nearly $2 billion and, according to independent UCLA researchers, resulted in no increase in crime. These researchers stress that Prop 36 would be even more successful if it received adequate funding.

Prop. 5 greatly expands and properly funds this proven program, while making improvements recommended by national experts and giving judges more power to hold offenders accountable, including jail sanctions as a last resort.

Drug court programs also produce impressive outcomes. Those programs are much smaller that Prop. 36, which is open to ten times the number of nonviolent drug offenders. To help them expand, Prop. 5 nearly triples funding for drug courts in California. In fact, Prop. 5 offers more money for California's drug courts than the federal government distributed to drug courts in all 50 states combined last year.

Prop. 5 also grants judges more power to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether to divert certain nonviolent offenders to drug treatment. This is something drug courts do now. Under Prop. 5, the judge may find that substance abuse motivated a nonviolent offense and that drug treatment would be in the best interests of public safety.

Finally, Prop. 5 deals with the fact that California has given up on rehabilitation behind bars, with disastrous results. Prop. 5 increases rehabilitation in prisons and for all offenders on parole. They'll have the resources they need, including educational and vocational training, drug and mental health treatment, and family counseling, to turn their lives around. Prop. 5 stops the revolving prison door and creates productive members of society.

By making these smart choices, Prop. 5 will help tens of thousands of people each year break their addictions, break the cycle of crime and incarceration, improve public safety and save taxpayers billions. That's why it is supported by the League of Women Voters of California, California Nurses Association, California Federation of Teachers and the Consumer Federation of California, among many others.

In these tough economic times, Californians can no longer accept the status quo - dumping $10 billion a year into a failed system. We've fallen way behind the rest of the country, even traditionally conservative states, on these necessary reforms, but Prop. 5 gives California voters the chance to once again lead the nation.

It's time to vote Yes on Prop. 5.