SACRAMENTO — In a state that has consistently boosted penalties for criminals, packing California's prisons to bursting, sponsors of the far-reaching Proposition 5 are asking voters in November to go in the opposite direction.
The Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, funded in part by billionaire George Soros, would be "the most ambitious sentencing and prison reform in U.S. history," according to the Drug Policy Alliance Network, a primary sponsor.
By 2010, the measure would commit the state to spending at least $460 million a year, mostly to increase treatment -- and eliminate incarceration -- for those who commit nonviolent crimes involving drugs or fueled by them.
Even when drugs aren't involved, the state no longer could seek to return many ex-convicts to prison for low-level parole violations, as occurred nearly 18,000 times last year, or revoke parole for actions that would qualify as misdemeanor crimes.
Parole terms for some offenders would decrease from three years to six months. A new prison bureaucracy devoted to rehabilitation would be created. And possession an ounce or less of marijuana would be an infraction, instead of a misdemeanor.
The measure could eventually cost Californians up to $1 billion, but also could ultimately save that much by reducing incarceration, according to the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst.
Opponents contend that the drug treatment offered in lieu of incarceration would be toothless, a "get-out-of-jail-free card" for addicts. They say the Drug Policy Alliance Network -- a spinoff of Soros' New York-based Open Society Institute, which fights against punitive drug laws -- is using the initiative to chip away at its true agenda: legalizing drugs.
"It is very well-crafted to move several steps in the direction of decriminalization," said Douglas B. Marlowe, chief of science, policy and law for the National Assn. of Drug Court Professionals. The backers "don't think that drugs should be illegal to begin with."
Law enforcement groups said the initiative would be difficult to change, requiring a four-fifths vote of the state Legislature, and lead to an increase in crime. And they object to a provision that would allow the expunging of some records, saying that, for example, a methamphetamine addict who steals cars can avoid prison, if a judge agrees, and have his record sealed after completing treatment.
Opponents have raised less than $300,000 for their campaign against the initiative, mainly from law enforcement groups and a San Diego County Indian tribe, the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, state records show. Supporters have raised more than $5 million, mostly from wealthy donors in other states.
The out-of-state contributors are interested in prison and sentencing issues nationally, said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the backers' deputy campaign manager. California, in part because of its size and its giant prison system, "has a significant impact" on the national debate, she said.
Dooley-Sammuli said the measure would advance sensible policy with respect to drug treatment, prisons and at-risk youth, for whom programs are also funded.
"It's looking at all of the places in the system where our policies are failing," she said.
Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, said the initiative is needed to combat the power wielded by law enforcement lobbyists in Sacramento.
"My biggest reason for supporting it is its emphasis on parole reform, which we've never been able to get through the Legislature because all the interest groups come in and block it," he said.
Proposition 5 would require dozens of new employees in the sprawling state prison and parole system, which already costs more than $10 billion a year. The agency would become two-headed, with a new secretary for rehabilitation and parole appointed by the governor to a six-year term, in addition to the existing secretary for corrections.
Each of the state's 33 prisons would be required to have a chief deputy warden for rehabilitation. And inmates would have to be given rehabilitation programs, which often are unavailable, at least 90 days before their release.
New state boards would be created, including one with 23 members to oversee treatment programs and another with 21 members, including a former inmate, overseeing parole. The new parole oversight board would implement additional credits that could allow inmates to cut their sentences by more than half -- the maximum they can reduce them now -- if they complete treatment, work in prison and behave.
The existing Board of Parole Hearings, which revokes and grants parole but is heavily backlogged, would increase from 17 to 29 members, and the state Senate would lose its power to confirm them.