Back in the early 1970’s, during the Nixon era, a new phrase became commonplace in the United States. The War on Drugs was the phrase, and while the idea to combat the sale and use of illegal drugs may have seemed like a good one, it had led to problems that no-one really saw coming 40 years ago. The biggest problem caused by the “war” was the overpopulation of the jails in the United States, with California being one of the hardest hit. The California jail system is designed to house around 80,000 inmates, but is currently running at double that capacity. Something had to give and Prop 47 is what many feel may be the answer.
What happened in the years after the War on Drugs began was that the users of drugs were essentially hammered with the same sentences doled out to the dealers. Rather than trying to treat addicts, it became common practice to simply lock them up and throw away the key. Simple drug possession, which is viewed as a misdemeanor in many other places, was viewed by the California justice system as a felony, with the end result being long jail terms. It wasn’t long before the jails started to fill up and burst at the seams.
Proposition 47 was put before California voters and sold as a way to reduce the overpopulation problems currently being seen across the state. It didn’t help that the state was starting to face a wave of civil suits filed by prisoners claiming to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment due to the conditions in the jails. It is not uncommon to find inmates housed in gymnasiums and other parts of the jail that are simply not designed to hold them. The Proposition passed during the recent mid-term elections, and now some big changes are afoot in California.
What all of this means is that thousands of incarcerated men and women across the state may now see their sentences reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, with many due for immediate release from jail. Those who are eligible under Prop 47 are inmates who received overblown sentences for drug violations and other non-violent crimes. While the release of these inmates is sure to ease the burden on the jail system, it is likely to create another. Housing and treatment are sure to be a concern once the jail doors open, but the state seems committed to helping find affordable housing and treatment options for all who are released.
This may be the first step in calling a cease fire to the War on Drugs. Yes, the battle is still likely to rage for years to come, but on a much smaller scale. The legalization of marijuana in a growing number of states is certainly one of the reasons why this is happening now, and why the Prop 47 vote may start to appear on the ballots in other states in the coming years. Prison overcrowding is an issue across the nation, and this may be the start of an even bigger solution.