Will US Penal Reform Tip the Balance for Addicts?

By Michael Dhar 07/17/13

In California and beyond, an unprecedented "experiment" is giving tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders the chance of alternatives to prison. Most have severe drug problems. What are their prospects?

California State Prison, Los Angeles Photo via

Stephen House spent the last few years of his decade in-and-out of California's prison system addicted to meth and anything else he could get. "I was on everything by the end," he said. But while in lockup, House never got any treatment. “They might give you GED [training], but that was it," he said.

House, 33, did serve as a fire hazard, though, wedged into a three-man bunk in a tiny prison gymnasium housing 300 other men. He saw conditions only deteriorate since he first went to prison at age 20 on attempted murder charges. He saw men “who never should have been in prison” murdered, and an older inmate denied healthcare "because they said he wasn't sick." The man died of pneumonia in his bed that night.

In a state famously bathed in sunshine and surf, an astonishing number of people have spent much of their lives crammed together in concrete cells. Now, after decades of runaway incarceration fueled greatly by the War on Drugs, California is in the midst of what one expert calls “the biggest penal experiment in modern history,” diverting tens of thousands of inmates from state prisons to local supervision. California’s so-called realignment leads a growing pack of sentencing and legal reforms nationwide, all designed to change how the US treats low-level offenders—most of them facing drug charges, and many suffering from addiction.

These policy shifts could mean much greater access to substance abuse treatments proven to reduce recidivism. But some advocates of prison reform fear that the new policies will result instead in more of the same—more jails that will require more drug offenders, and more untreated addicts who will fit the bill.

Prison Conditions: "A Human Cattle Call"

By June 27 of this year, under a federal court’s 2011 ruling, California was required to remove some 30,000 inmates from its state prison system. A recent stay extended that deadline to December, but the state remains in the final stages of realignment, aka Assembly Bill (AB) 109, which transfers the authority for low-level felons from the prisons to the state's 58 counties while encouraging a move to “evidence-based” incarceration alternatives. Realignment has affected the sentences of over 100,000 offenders, and is "the biggest penal experiment in modern history,” wrote Stanford Law Professor Joan Petersilia, in a study of the process.

That 2011 ruling responded to unconstitutionally unsafe and overcrowded conditions in the prisons, with inmates denied adequate medical and mental health care. By 2006, California’s prisons housed 173,000 prisoners, more than twice as many as the facilities were originally designed to hold.

Some advocates fear that the new policies will result in more jails that will require more drug offenders, and more untreated addicts who will fit the bill.

"It's a human cattle call," House said. "It's a joke." 

In January, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared realignment, so far, a success, saying, “The prison emergency is over in California." But the healthcare has not improved, and conditions are still unconstitutional, said Kimberly Horiuchi, an attorney with the Northern California ACLU.

Critics of realignment predicted that diverting offenders from prisons would endanger public safety. "It was a bad policy, and we're seeing the exact bad results we expected," said Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice League Foundation, citing increased violent crime. "The state has lowered the consequences for about 500 felonies," he said. "When you lower the consequences for criminal behavior, you get more criminal behavior." 

In early 2012, property and violent crimes went up in 40 of California's largest cities. Yet those counties receiving most AB 109 offenders actually saw violent crime drop. Overall, 80% of Californians supported realignment when it passed, according to a Los Angeles Times poll.

As bad as California's conditions became, they merely represented the worst of a 30-year, nationwide trend. Paul Thompson, a former prisoner who served decades in Colorado’s prisons since the age of 16, is now a peer counselor in many of the same prisons. He has watched inmate populations balloon in his state, which recently passed comprehensive sentencing reform. On his visits, Thompson now sees two prisoners crowded into his former single-occupant cells, he said.

“A lot of people in a small area like that just breeds a lot of insanity and anger,” he said.

Thompson has worked with inmates on drug rehabilitation for 23 years, but admits that overcrowded prisons are hardly the best place to host treatment. With no private rooms to spare, counseling takes place in view of many other prisoners. “Everybody gets looked over," he said. "They're sitting in front of 80 guys, with the others wondering, 'Is this guy gonna cry?'" 

House finally got treatment, and an alternative to prison five months ago thanks to realignment, which sent him back to his hometown of Bakersfield, in Kern County. He has stayed sober thanks to treatment at local community organizations, and completed job training at the New Life Recovery and Training Center. He now works tying rebar in construction.

Most inmates in the California prison system have not had those chances, though. At the same time that the state's prisons were expanding, rehabilitation programs were gutted. In Kern County, which has the state’s highest rate of recidivism, most realignment offenders with substance abuse problems had little or no treatment while in prison, said Jan Casteel, a New Life program administrator.

"More than 50% say they have never had any treatment," she said.

The Great Realignment: From Incarceration to Rehabilitation 

Although AB 109’s goal is to ease overcrowding in state prisons, the bill also prods counties to spend "on evidence-based community corrections practices and programs.” So realignment presents an opportunity to replace incarceration with rehabilitation programs that cut rates of recidivism, notes a report by the Northern California ACLU.

Such alternative programs would ideally feature addiction treatment, as 60% of the nation’s inmate population has substance abuse problems, according to a California Mental Health Planning Council study of realignment. Those numbers likely underestimate what California's counties are seeing, with many local officials expressing shock at the extent and severity of realignment offenders' drug issues, the study found. In San Mateo County, over 90% of realignment offenders arrived with drug problems.

The anti-incarceration policies arrive at a time of steadily rising momentum for alternative sentencing and other reforms, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. Prison overcrowding nationwide, along with its massive costs, have intensified a decade-long pushback against the Drug War’s lock-’em-up strategy, he said. Meanwhile, the Recession's decimation of state budgets has only accelerated the urgency of cutting costly imprisonments. Last year, 24 states adopted sentencing reforms, according to a Sentencing Project report.

"Cost has been an important part of it—the fiscal crisis has governments looking at the price of incarceration," Mauer said. "But there's also a growing interest in looking at what actually reduces crime and recidivism."

While addiction is notoriously difficult to treat (only 20% of alcoholics recover), substance abuse programs have had some success in slowing the revolving door. A 2012 study showed a 15% to 17% reduction in recidivism thanks to treatment, and the ACLU notes that addiction programs should play an important role in reducing California's overall 67% recidivism rate.

"I meet with guys who, without getting treatment, are going to go through the same ruinous cycles," Thompson said. “[As an addiction counselor], I've got to teach them a different way of living.”

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