Mental Health Matters: California’s Prop 47 deserves a ‘yes’ vote | SierraSun.com

Mental Health Matters: California’s Prop 47 deserves a ‘yes’ vote

Andrew Whyman

California citizens have an opportunity to do good and right, both for themselves and their fellow citizens on November 4, by voting for the passage of Proposition 47.

Nevada folks should also pay attention, because the same issues affect them.

Proposition 47, called the Safe Neighborhoods and School Act or the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative, would, if approved by the voters, reduce the classification of most "non serious and nonviolent property and drug crimes" from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The initiative is authored by current District Attorney and former Police Chief of San Francisco George Gascon; Former Chief of Police in San Diego, San Jose, and Richmond, William Lansdowne; and Diane Wilson, Victims' Advocate Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.

“In the spirit of advocating for an informed public, I encourage you to carefully assess the arguments offered by the bill’s opponents. To my mind, they are driven by a punishment first ideology, rather than any fact-based assessment.”

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This initiative would mandate misdemeanors instead of felonies for "non serious, nonviolent crimes," unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, certain sex crimes, or certain gun crimes. It would also permit re-sentencing for anyone currently serving a prison sentence for any of the offenses that the initiative reduces to misdemeanors.

The initiative would also require a "thorough review" of criminal history and risk assessment before re-sentencing to ensure there is no risk to the public. Savings generated by passage of the initiative would be distributed to the counties for substance abuse and mental health services, school education programs, and victims services.

In sum, the initiative would reduce prison penalties for personal drug possession and other minor crimes. The bill would not, as some of its detractors claim, be a "get out of jail pass" initiative. For example, conviction for non-violent drug possession could still result in a one year jail sentence at the discretion of the court.

Passage of this initiative will assist in reducing the epidemic, discredited jailing of non-violent offenders whose drug use is largely driven by mental health problems.

Don't believe me? A just published report from the highly regarded non-partisan National Research Council makes the same point — see "Growth of Incarceration in the United States, 2014."

Here's what the report says, "After decades of stability from the 1920's to the early 1970's, the rate of imprisonment in the United States more than quadrupled during the last four decades. The U.S. penal population is by far the largest in the world. Just under one-quarter of the world's prisoners are held in American prisons. The U.S. rate of incarceration, with nearly one out of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is 5 to 10 times higher than the rates in Western Europe and other democracies."

The report goes on to attribute this explosive growth in incarceration partly to the "intensified criminalization of drug related activity" during the past 40 years.

The report then recommends a "reconsideration of drug driven policy, given the low effectiveness of a heightened enforcement strategy that resulted in a tenfold increase in the incarceration rates for drug offenses from 1980 to 2010-twice the rate of other crimes."

Still not convinced that an incarceration strategy for these offenses doesn't work? In California, the re-offender rate is 60 percent within three years of release from prison — i.e., six of every 10 people after serving prison time will commit further offenses within three years.

I would also call your attention to the recent landmark study requested by Placer County. The study, after surveying its justice system, recommended a reduction of jail admissions, and an increase in drug detoxification and mental health treatment services coupled with an expansion of other rehabilitation services.

There is widespread support for Prop 47 from a diverse range of law enforcement, public safety, judicial and elected public officials as well as the faith based community — see http://www.safety and schools.com.

The latter group includes the California Catholic Conference, the official voice of the Catholic community in California"s public policy arena. While rarely taking positions on ballot measures, they too have endorsed this one.

In the spirit of advocating for an informed public, I encourage you to carefully assess the arguments offered by the bill's opponents. To my mind, they are driven by a punishment first ideology, rather than any fact-based assessment.

Do not be misled by baseless warnings that dangerous criminals will be released to the streets, that date rape will increase, or that criminals will be protected if this initiative becomes law.

Ask yourself why the same groups, now claiming that irrevocable harm will befall the public should this initiative pass, were silent during the past 40 years when draconian, soul-destroying imprisonment policies failed to protect the public and cost all of us billions of dollars. Then vote.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at adwhyman143@gmail.com.