The Pump Handle

Treatment, Not Prison: Reforming Sentences for Low-Level Crimes Will Boost Health and Safety for All Californians

By Kim Gilhuly

Reforming California’s sentences for low-level crimes would alleviate prison and jail overcrowding, make communities safer, strengthen families, and shift resources from imprisoning people to treating them for the addictions and mental health problems at the root of many crimes, according to a study by Human Impact Partners.

Rehabilitating Corrections in California, a Health Impact Assessment of reforms proposed by a state ballot initiative, predicts the changes would reduce crime, recidivism, and racial inequities in sentencing, while saving the state and its counties $600 million to $900 million a year – but only if treatment and rehabilitation programs are fully funded and implemented properly.

Human Impact Partners conducted an in-depth assessment of the public health and equity impacts of reclassifying six non-serious offenses – crimes of drug possession and petty theft – to misdemeanors. The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, Proposition 47 on the November 2014 state ballot, would also allow people currently in prison for those crimes to apply for reduced sentences and possible release, if deemed eligible by a judge, and redirect savings from the reduction in the prison population to mental health and substance abuse programs, truancy and dropout prevention, and services for victims of violent crime.

If Proposition 47 passes, California would become the latest state to embrace the idea that prisons should be reserved for those who commit serious crimes – not those whose non-violent, non-sexual offenses stem from addictions and mental health problems. Perhaps surprisingly, many of those are so-called red states known more for conservative politics than “progressive” public policy.

Since 2003 Texas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio and Pennsylvania have all enacted similar reforms. No less a conservative icon than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It makes no sense to send nonserious, nonviolent offenders to a place filled with hardened criminals and a poor record of rehabilitation — and still expect them to come out better than they went in.”

Looking at corrections through a public health lens starts with the fact that fundamentally, prison is not a healthy environment. Every day, conditions in California’s dangerously overcrowded prisons and jails causes physical and mental harm to thousands of incarcerated men and women. Many of these people were convicted of crimes that pose no serious threat to others, but can be traced to their own substance abuse and mental health problem. We’d all be better off if they were given treatment and held accountable in their own communities, instead of being sent to prison.

A shift in how we charge and sentence people who have committed non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual crimes has far-reaching implications for the health and well-being not only of those who commit those offenses, but of their families, their communities, and the public. HIP’s assessment found that full implementation of the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act would:

“Evidence is overwhelming that providing treatment to offenders who have substance abuse problems or mental illnesses reduces crime and recidivism,” said Rajiv Bhatia, M.D., former environmental health director for the City and County of San Francisco. “Treatment instead of prison not only benefits their health and well-being, but that of their families and the entire community.”

According to the study, the benefits of sentencing reform would reach far beyond prison walls.

(Kim Gilhuly, MPH, is a program director at Human Impact Partners, an Oakland, Calif., nonprofit that studies the health and equity impacts of public policy. Neither HIP nor funders of the study are endorsing Proposition 47.)