California Prop 47’s Unintended Consequences for Drug Court Programs

By Kimberly Tuttle (CMC’19)

On November 4, 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47, “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.” The initiative reduces certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors. It also requires misdemeanor sentencing for petty theft, receiving stolen property and forging bad checks when the amount involved is $950 or less. It was intended to “ensure that prison spending is focused on violent and serious offenses, maximize alternatives for nonserious, nonviolent crime, and invest the savings generated to support elementary and high school programs, victim’s services, and mental health and drug treatment.” At the time of the 2014 California elections, it received widespread support, namely from the ACLU, NAACP, then-Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and several other notable celebrities and organizations. Nearly five years after its implementation, the effects of the initiative have materialized. One unintended consequence is the plethora of barriers it has imposed for adult drug court programs in California.  

Adult drug court programs are a subset of collaborative courts, which, according to the California Judicial Branch’s website, are interdisciplinary state courts that “combine judicial supervision with rehabilitation services that are rigorously monitored and focused on recovery to reduce recidivism and improve offender outcomes.” Instead of a traditional adversarial court model, drug courts unite defendants, prosecutors, probation officers, healthcare officials, and judges with the common goal of combating addiction. The prosecutor and the defense do not work against each other – rather, they work together to provide drug treatment and increased opportunities to each participant.

The target participant for a drug court program is a drug-addicted individual who commits crimes for the sake of feeding their drug addiction, rather than an individual who commits crimes and uses drugs separately. The success of drug courts is dependent on the participant’s willingness to commit to a life of sobriety, and the ability for these programs to access the correct target audience.  

Before Proposition 47 was implemented, drug possession crimes were prosecuted as felonies. Afterward, however, drug possession crimes became classified as misdemeanors. Thus, before 2014, people who were convicted for the possession of heroin were given two options: serve two, three, or four years in state prison or participate in an 18-month drug court rehabilitative program. The choice was clear for many people.

If deemed eligible, the drug court participants were not required to stay in custody. Rather, they were encouraged to live normal lives – attend school, work full-time, and foster connections with friends and families. Participants were kept on track through a system of benefits and sanctions. The participants were regularly tested for drugs and would face varying degrees of sanctions if they tested positive: reflection essays, community service, or limited time in custody.  Depending on each case, participants were also required to attend sobriety groups, participate in therapy programs, and engage in different forms of community involvement.

Judge Matthew Anderson, who presides over the adult drug court program at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach, California, stated, “compassion is the difference in drug courts. The participants do not need a man in a robe, sitting on a bench higher than they are, to tell them what they are doing is wrong. They have other critics to do that. In drug court, participants need to be shown that someone believes in them.”

Drug courts provide a unique rehabilitative process for those who are entangled in the criminal justice system. It has proven to be highly successful in combating addiction and removing its participants from lives of crime.

However, Proposition 47 has imposed barriers to California’s drug court programs. Participants now only face days or weeks in jail for drug-related crimes due to the reclassification of these crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Thus, there is a reduced incentive for drug users to choose an 18-month drug court program when their alternative is far less time in jail through the process of the traditional criminal justice system.

Drug courts have seen direct effects of Proposition 47 on the program’s participation rates. In 2014, the year Proposition 47 passed, Orange County – the county in which Judge Matthew Anderson resides – had 359 participants at year-end. In 2015, there were 317 participants and in 2016, there were 312. Similarly, LA County had 681 new participants in 2014, but only 375 in 2015.

Proposition 47 has not only negatively affected participation rates, but has also shifted the demographics of the program participants. Judge Anderson explains that after the implementation of Proposition 47, it has become increasingly difficult to “identify qualified candidates.” Rather than an individual being considered for drug court after their first drug offense, judges and defense attorneys are seeing people cycle through the system with eight, nine, or ten citations of drug possession before they feel ready to commit to a life of sobriety via a drug court program.

Proposition 47 has essentially delayed the time it takes for drug court programs to target the correct population – early-stage abusers. Today, drug court criteria have shifted in order to get participants into the program. Now, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys are considering people with more serious criminal records. For example, armed robbers used to be deemed immediately ineligible for the program, due to the vulnerable population of participants. Though, even those with serious criminal offenses are now being considered for the program.

The issue here remains the target population. Addictions are best overcome if intervention occurs at an early stage. However, Proposition 47 has delayed the time it takes for drug court programs to effectively reach early-stage addicts. Thus, these early-stage addicts are becoming more deeply entrenched in drugs and crime, lowering their chances of achieving a healthy and productive lifestyle. Now, these early-stage abusers are becoming late-stage abusers before considering drug court programs.

This is risky for drug courts because expanding criteria to include serious criminals could jeopardize the legitimacy of the entire program. Higher chances of bad accidents, like a participant committing a violent crime while in the program, can endanger the program as a whole.

While Proposition 47 was well-intentioned – to keep low-level drug offenders out of prison – it has in fact created difficult barriers for drug courts, one of California’s most effective treatment programs.

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