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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

What kind of prison relief does Prop. 5 promise?

Whatever else might be said about Proposition 5, it would be difficult to dispute that it would reduce prison overcrowding and save taxpayer money. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) estimates that the measure would reduce the prison population by more than 18,000 inmates, or a bit more than 10% of the current population of 171,000. In addition, the LAO calculates that under Proposition 5, there will be 22,000 fewer parolees.

As a result, California taxpayers would save at least $2.5 billion, according to the LAO. To put that number in perspective, $2.5 billion would be enough to pay the salaries of 37,500 elementary school teachers or healthcare for 2 million California children.

This prison population reduction is sorely needed. California currently has too many nonviolent offenders behind bars, and too many nonviolent parolees are sent back to state prison for technical violations of parole -- very often a minor drug violation such as a positive urinalysis. With our prison system at 60,000-plus inmates over capacity, Proposition 5 will help ensure that scarce incarceration space is used for serious and violent offenders.

The ballooning prison population is quickly moving beyond a run-of-the-mill policy problem and becoming a true crisis for our state. Here is how serious the situation is: Just this Monday, a federal district court judge ordered that state officials cough up $250 million for prisoner healthcare by Nov. 5 or risk being held in contempt of court with possible fines of up to $3 million a day.

Frankly, given the dire nature of our overcrowding problem and the difficult choices the state faces, Proposition 5 might be worth considering even if the reduced prison population and taxpayer savings came with costs in the form of a slight decrease in effectiveness. But they don't. Proposition 5 would achieve its inmate reductions and tax savings without sacrificing efficiency. Indeed, Proposition 5 would improve our efforts to combat addiction and related crimes by offering a public-health solution (drug treatment) to a public-health problem (drug abuse).

How do we know Proposition 5 would work and wouldn't lead to dramatic increases in crime, as its opponents charge? Because of the track record of Proposition 36, a similar but more limited drug-treatment ballot initiative approved by California voters in 2000. [Mark Godsey]

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