Treatment, Not Prison: How Sentencing Reform Will Boost Health for All Californians

Oakland – 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 released today.

Rehabilitating Corrections in California, a Health Impact Assessment of reforms proposed by a state ballot initiative, predicts the changes would reduce crime, recidivism, racial inequities in sentencing, and save 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 lower sentences and possible release, if deemed eligible by a judge Prop. 47 would 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.Treatment is much less costly than punishment, returning $3.77 in benefits for every dollar spent.

“Every day, conditions in California’s dangerously overcrowded prisons and jails cause physical and mental harm to thousands of incarcerated men and women,” said Kim Gilhuly, MPH, lead author of the study. “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 problems. 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. Full implementation of the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act would:

  • Decrease state corrections spending by $200 million to $300 million a year and county corrections spending by $400 million to $600 million a year. It would increase state funding for mental health and substance abuse programs, school truancy prevention and victim services by $200 million to $300 million a year.
  • Reduce the number of people convicted of felonies by more than 40,000 a year, and the number sentenced to prison by more than 3,000 a year. It ​would a​ llow more than 9,000 people now in prison for felonies for low-level crimes to apply for reduced sentence and release.
  • Reduce violent and property crime by reducing the number of people who re-offend and return to prison by at least 10% a year among people who participate in treatment programs.
  • Reduce the rates of incarceration of African-Americans and Hispanics, who are more likely to be sentenced to prison, county jail, or probation ​than​ whites for the same low-level crimes. African-Americans are only 7% of California’s population but they represent almost one-fourth of prison admissions. Hispanics are arrested and imprisoned at slightly higher rates than their share of the population, and are 60% more likely than whites to be jailed.

“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. The benefits of sentencing reform would reach far beyond prison walls.”

  • Almost 4,900 parents in prison currently separated from more than 10,000 children could apply for release and return to their families or serve their sentences in a county jail closer to home. More than 40,000 people a year would avoid the additional punishments of a felony conviction – restricted access to jobs, housing, voting and other benefits – and tens of thousands could have their felony records cleared, making it easier for them to access the resources they need.

Truancy and dropout prevention programs keep children in school, greatly reducing the chance that they will run afoul of the justice system. A 10% increase in California’s high school graduation rate could lead to a 20% decrease in violent crime.

  • A statewide network of trauma recovery centers will help 12,000 to 18,000 people a year heal from the physical and emotional impacts of being a victim of violent crime.

“The sentencing reforms called for in Proposition 47 are a crucial next step in fixing California’s broken justice system,” said Stephen Downing, a retired former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

“Two years ago, the state transferred responsibility for many non-serious, non-violent crimes from to counties, but thousands are still sent to prison each year for the low-level offenses addressed by Proposition 47​,” Downing said. “​The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act would allow for alternative forms of punishment than incarceration for certain offenses and also fund treatment, prevention, and recovery services that will make California safer and healthier. “