Focus on Proposition 5: The Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act

In a previous post, I briefly presented the three criminal-justice-related propositions on the California ballot. In this post, and two more posts to follow, I’ll expand about each of these, starting today with Proposition 5.

NORA, or the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, builds on the ruins of Prop 36, which was passed in 2000. Prop 36 promised drug abuse treatments for offenders charged with simple possession. Since 2000, the plan received praise as well as critique. Some point to a reduction in recidivism, and others highlight that less than half of the offenders complete treatment. Recently, Prop 36 lost close to half its allocated budget through gubernatorial fund cuts (and here‘s what the critics think about the cuts).

NORA aims to propose a modified version of Prop 36, and it might affect drug offenders in a variety of ways. It emphasizes rehabilitation as an answer to the prison overcrowding crisis, and provides mechanisms that exist in a variety of countries, such as drug treatment which is not accompanied by an official conviction. In this post, I’d like to highlight some aspects of Prop 5, some of which have not been emphasized on other web discussions.

As mentioned in an earlier post, “nonviolent drug offenses”, for the purposes of Prop 5, include simple possession of drugs or paraphernalia, as well as being under the influence. Any such scenario that includes trafficking purposes is excluded from this definition.

The drug treatment programs offered by Prop 5 follow a principle of “harm reduction”, and would be personalized to fit the particular offender and his or her circumstances. They could include science-based instruction, outpatient services, residential treatment, medication, mental health, and aftercare.

The proposition offers three tracks of diversion and treatment, which are left to the court’s discretion:
• Track I: treatment diversion with deferred entry of judgment (carrying no criminal conviction)
• Track II: treatment diversion after a conviction, as a probation requirement, including sealing of records after probation
• Track III: treatment diversion after a conviction for possession of controlled substances: other nonviolent offenses: judicial discretion (for people who failed Track II and continue to have a problem). I should point out that “second chances” are a crucial component of drug programs, because it is unrealistic to expect addicts not to “fall off the wagon”.

Placement is established upon clinical evaluation and is quite flexible.

Prop 5 also addresses the meaning of drug treatments in prison. Successful completion of drug programs in prison would provide “good behavior” credits, equivalent to those earned through work, which add up and might lead to one’s early release. Another important and often neglected aspect of Prop 5 is its emphasis on reentry. Under the proposed legislation, contact with the offender is established 90 days before release from prison, in an attempt to create a good support network, workwise and treatmentwise, upon release.

In addition to these, Prop 5 also includes provisions that make it more difficult to return offenders to prison due to technical parole violations. When the violation is a misdemeanor, non-incarceration options are prioritized.

Prop 5 would require a reorganization of the CDCR, adding a Secretary of Rehabilitation and Parole with increased resources devoted to parole, probation, and rehabilitative programs in prison. There are also a variety of fact-based assessment mechanisms, built to examine the success of Prop 5 programs, including academic evaluation studies and research conferences.

How much money will this cost? The answer to that question is uncertain, as expenses on programs may be offset by savings in prisons. The amount of savings would depend on the success of drug programs in reducing recidivism. What do you think?

Recidivism Reduction in Mental Health Courts?

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of hosting Dale McNiel from UCSF, who gave a talk about his work with Renée Binder evaluating the effects of the San Francisco Mental Health Court on recidivism. The court offers various programs and close supervision; the defendants’ progress is monitored and, at some point, they graduate from the program. Participation in the mental health court is voluntary. Here’s a pretty positive take on the program.

McNiel and Binder’s study is a great example of an evaluation project on problem-solving courts. One of the problems in measuring the success of sentencing alternatives is that you really need to compare your program to the traditional sentencing and correctional methods. Due to the fact that the mental health court population is self selected (participation in the program is voluntary), the study and control groups are, obviously, not formed through random allocation. Therefore, various pretreatment variables, which might explain why some people might choose to attend mental health court, might also explain differences in recidivism rates. To partially offset this problem, McNiel and Binder use propensity weighting; they select the control group based on criteria that would make them resemble the population that does choose to go to mental health court, as much as possible.

McNiel and Binder’s findings clearly indicate a reduction in recidivism for both violent and nonviolent offenses, which grows over time. They control for a variety of demographic and clinical variables. The nuances are important; the court seems to be better for people with certain disorders, and I’m not sure I fully understand its interaction with substance abuse and homelessness, which many people in the study group experience. Also, as they point out in their discussion, this is only one study of one court; recidivism rates may differ across mental health courts, and may be a function not only of the programs themselves, but of the sanctions imposed by the court. Fascinating stuff, and I hope the followup yields more generalizable results.

Problem Solving Courts

San Francisco’s new Community Justice Center, and its existing Drug Court, follow a general model of problem-solving courts. The National Center for State Courts produces this toolkit for States seeking to implement this model; the nice thing about the toolkit is that it contains not only success stories, but also different perspectives on the enterprise from within the system.

Those interested in a broader theoretical introduction to problem solving courts and to therapeutic justice in general will enjoy Candace McCoy’s The Politics of Problem-Solving: An Overview of the Origins and Development of Therapeutic Courts, 40 American Criminal Law Review (2003). Laurie O. Robinson’s comment on the paper (published on the same volume) is equally interesting, and provides a more optimistic practitioner’s perspective.

Are problem-solving courts a good answer to the correctional crisis? What do you think?

Community Justice Center Town Hall Meeting

The new Community Justice Center, which will officially start working in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, is holding a Town Hall Meeting. Here is some more information:

Please join us at the Community Justice Center (CJC) Town Hall Meeting, Wednesday, September 24 (5:30-7pm),

201 Turk Street Apartments,Community Room.

Here’s an update on our current CJC activities:

The Board of Supervisors released reserve funds totaling $1 million. This is primarily for capital costs.
The Board of Supervisors granted the authority to accept and expend the $983,000 in federal funding for the CJC. This is primarily for positions and other administrative costs.
The BOS granted the sublease for 555 Polk, and the authority to undertake the necessary tenant improvements mostly for ADA compliance.
We are starting the construction of holding cells at 575 Polk Street.
In the next week or two, the CJC Advisory Board will be announced. The CJC Coordinator has been selected and will also be formally announced.
Pending the completion of tenant improvements at 555 Polk Street, we hope the CJC will be open sometimin February 2009. In the meantime, the court will continue to work with key city partners to set up the operational infrastructure for the CJC so we can hit the ground running in the spring.

For the Town Hall meeting Commissioner Ron Albers will provide case examples of how the CJC program will work. There will also be lots of time for questions and answers. Please share this post with friends and colleagues.

Read about the CJC in particular, and about other collaborative justice projects in general, on their blog.