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Treatment or time? Prop 5 will decide

October 10, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
If California's Proposition 5 passes in November, the state's prisons will be a lot less crowded. Prop 5 requires treatment, instead of time behind bars for many drug crimes. Opponents say it allows criminals to escape responsibility for their crimes.Prop 5 is called the "Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act." If voters approve it, offenders whose crimes are caused by drugs could face treatment instead of time in jail. In addition, parole could decrease from three years to six months. Money saved from prison costs would be spent on rehab instead.

The initiative is heavily backed by billionaire George Soros, along with others who believe sentences are too tough on drug offenders.

"Prop 5 benefits nonviolent offenders only. But, it really benefits all of Californians because we get at the root of the problem, which is addiction. If you can address a person's addiction, addiction is very treatable. Then, you prevent crime. You stop crime before it happens. And that saves us all money and improves public safety," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, who supports Proposition 5.

Actor Martin Sheen, who has had family experience with drugs, says it will do just the opposite. He joins leading prosecutors, like the Los Angeles District Attorney, who believes the intent of Prop 5 is to legalize drugs.

"I'd rather have them do a straight up proposition on, 'Should we legalize drugs or not?' But, don't do it in a sneaky way and let criminals who are causing real harm off the hook because they claim to use drugs," said District Attorney Steve Cooley, who is against Proposition 5.

The D.A. cites a UCLA study that shows a quarter of offenders do not show up for rehab. And, also according to the study, the half who do attend rehab drop out.

But, the proponents cite the same study, saying it shows $2.50 saved for every dollar invested.

"This is not a soft, quality of life dollar. These are hard, real budget dollars that we did not spend locking people up. Instead, we invest it in their recovery," said Dooley-Sammuli.

"It's a get-out-of-jail-free card for criminals who should be either incarcerated, or at least threatened with incarceration. At least the possibility of incarceration may deter them. But, you eliminate that from the criminal justice equation, it's a recipe for disaster, "said Cooley.

Proposition 5 is a statutory initiative. If passed, it would require a 4/5 vote of the legislature to amend it.

Independent analysis shows that it would cost about the same to sentence a nonviolent drug offender to rehabilitation rather than prison. But, it will create a whole new state bureaucracy. Voters will have to decide if that is worth it.


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