In recent news, a 48-year-old man in Louisiana was sentenced to 22 years in prison for possession of cocaine. Tammany Parish was a repeat drug offender that has been in and out of prisons battling his disease of addiction. Parish’s lawyers argued in court that his crime was non-violent and should receive a lighter sentence. The judge on this case sentenced Parish to 22 years and considered it to be on the lower end since they were non-violent. Not only do we live in a country where we witness harsh drug sentences but it is also happening in our own backyard, the state of California As a graduate student studying for a master’s degree in social work, I interned at a social service agency that worked with individuals facing homelessness and addiction. While leading a support group for participants, I had the opportunity to speak with a certain individual who shared his personal story about the factors that led him to our agency. After being released with a few bucks in his pockets, he had nowhere to go, and no family or friends to receive support from. Aside from having little to no support, he now faced the barriers of life as a convicted felon.
Over time, I spoke with more individuals and discovered that the common obstacle for these individuals was re-integrating into society after serving a prison sentence for drug offenses. Without a permanent home, or a social support, it often leads them to commit crimes again in order to survive and also to support their addictions. This is a never-ending cycle. After being convicted and identified as a felon, there is the lack of support for housing and education, and finding a job is nearly impossible. Not to mention the overcrowded prisons offer very little support for substance abuse and mental health. Many continue to be punished for their addiction but never receive proper rehabilitation for their disease of addiction.
Each trip to prison costs the state money and the offender becoming a statistic of recidivism. So, what can be done to prevent homelessness and recidivism? The common response would be to offer housing as a form of prevention and build on that through education and job training. While this is a proactive approach, this is not going to help the underlying problem of preventing homelessness and recidivism. I pondered on the issue and came to the conclusion that the money spent on California prisons needs to be reduced significantly and allocated towards drug rehabilitation, education, mental health, and social services for the marginalized population.
We live in a society that does not forgive felons. The barriers faced by these individuals lead them to commit crimes again. It is in our citizens’ best interest to push for a reform in current controlled substance sentencing laws. Recently, on Oct. 13, 2013, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Senate Bill 649. SB-649 was intended to reform our current controlled substance sentencing laws, giving the prosecutor the flexibility to prosecute the case as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. By no means am I suggesting that we let drug abusers off the hook. However, what I am advocating is that we find other alternatives to reduce the overcrowding, recidivism rate and the number of felons in our communities. The idea that California believes that sentencing a controlled substance abuser to a lengthy prison sentence will rehabilitate the individual and he/she will be ready to re-integrate into society, has proven to be a failure. I believe that rehabilitation rather than a prison system is the way to go. Governor Brown thought rehabilitation for a cocaine abuser was not the route to take, so until then, we will continue to witness this vicious cycle and spend more on prisons than education.
SB-649 would save the state millions of dollars and would also give those convicted an opportunity to make a change without having to face the barriers convicted felons face, living as second class citizens. Author of SB-649, Mark Leno (D), suggests that offenders enter evidence based programs that have proven to have reduced recidivism and make our communities a safer place. Recidivism is a common occurrence in the state of California. It is in our citizens’ best interest to push for a reform in current controlled substance sentencing laws.
Ultimately, the goal of SB-649 is to reduce the cost spent on prison and attack the issue from the root by investing more on drug rehabilitation, education, social services and mental health services (Mark Leno (D).
Christine Mondragon and Jaimie Martinez are graduate students at the University of Southern California and candidates for master degrees in clinical social work. They wrote this op-ed as part of an assignment at USC.
Published: May 15, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 05