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«From Inception to Implementation: How SACPA has affected the Case Processing and Sentencing of Drug Offenders in One California County DISSERTATION ...»

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It was clear that the personalities and viewpoints of the core stakeholders really drove implementation. My impression is that, had it not been for some of the specific members of the implementation team, Proposition 36 in Orange County would look very different, specifically, less rehabilitation-oriented. Percival (2004) examined how political ideology at the county level affected implementation. However, I think more important are the philosophical ideologies of the core stakeholders, those making the decisions. For example, had the public defender’s representative not sent the message that we ‘will make this work,” the dialogue could have ended in a stalemate and the disagreements would had to have been settled in courtrooms across the county (probably with different outcomes). Furthermore, if the probation department representatives at the table had ascribed to the typical line officer’s mentality (that Prop36 was a “piece of shit”) instead of having a strong belief in treatment, the collaboration efforts that defined Orange County would have been significantly different. As it was, the practitioners at the Orange County Prop36 implementation table had high hopes that Prop36 would work and they had the desire, courage, and determination to work hard for a model focused on offender treatment rather than one focused primarily on supervision and sanctions. Unfortunately, insufficient funding exacerbated by an unexpected clientele, forced Orange County practitioners to abandon their vision and structure a more frugal response to Proposition 36.

Impact on Law Enforcement Officers and Agencies Prior to conducting this research, it was discussed whether much would be learned by interviewing law enforcement officers. After all, Proposition 36 is a sentencing policy, not a law enforcement policy. It plays out in the courtroom, not on the street corner. Some academics and many law enforcement acquaintances and friends argued that “beat cops are not going to know anything about Prop36” (Confidential Informant NAD, personal communication). Of course, that was one of the research questions-- what do officers know about Proposition 36, how do they know it, and how do they act on it? Does it change their behavior in any way?

As street-level bureaucrats with considerable discretion, police officers can have a profound impact on how Proposition 36 impacts the criminal justice system.

This is because officers (and other street-level bureaucrats) “retain a considerable amount of flexibility in implementing formal rules” (Aaronson et al,, 1981: 78). They choose how they will conduct business within the confines of the law. Thus, as first responders and gate keepers, law enforcement officers have a direct impact on how “law on the books” plays out as “law in action.” The impact of Proposition 36 partly depends on whether and how officers alter their discretionary arrest practices.

Together, the quantitative data and the qualitative interviews tell a story of how this legislation, enacted by the voters, had several unintended consequences for law enforcement officers. This study describes how officers feel about the law and illustrates how they opted to respond. As will be revealed, while most officers are not well versed in the nuts and bolts legalese of Proposition 36, the law has had an impact on their job, and many officers actively engage in practices intended to keep offenders from benefiting from this voter-mandated diversion.

One thing that law enforcement professionals agree on, unanimously, is that Proposition 36 is not working for the vast majority of drug offenders. Over and over, law enforcement officers voiced their frustration at a system that, in their view, hands out yet another “get out of jail free card” to drug offenders who “have to screw up more than five times before they see the inside of a jail cell.” They are exasperated at “the revolving door” of justice and wonder aloud “what’s the point?” of arresting drug offenders with Proposition 36 as law. There is consensus among officers that Proposition 36 is a massive failure; as it makes the job of narcotics investigators more difficult, discourages patrol officers from making drug arrests, and sends the message to drug offenders that felony drug possession is “no big deal.” Every officer interviewed argued that “burglars” are benefiting from this law.

As one officer put it, “most of the people that do burglaries and robberies and that stuff are narcotics offenders and you get them on something to take them off the street and they are right back out doing their thing again (because of Prop36)” (Confidential Informant, personal communication). This issue is an important one for officers and highlights their underlying belief that Proposition 36 undermines their job and what they are trying to achieve, which is to “put bad guys away.” Thus, one of the most interesting findings is that, although most officers know very little about Proposition 36, they know just enough about the law to intentionally circumvent it. Findings, which are presented below, are grouped into five main topics: (1) officer frustration;

(2) patrol officer arrest practices; (3) narcotics units; (4) court time; and (5) citizen satisfaction. The major findings in each category, as well as possible causes and impacts, are explored below.

–  –  –





It is clear that law enforcement officers are frustrated by Proposition 36.

Officers are crime-fighters and problem-solvers and for a number of reasons, they view Proposition 36 as subverting their efforts to clean up the streets and decrease crime. They want offenders held responsible (punished) for their behavior and believe that Proposition 36 is allowing offenders to escape penalty for their actual (as well as assumed) crimes. The frustration expressed by law enforcement officers is based on their view of themselves as crime fighters (not social workers) and is fueled by several key issues that are interconnected. First and foremost, officers are frustrated that they are entangled in a revolving door of justice in which offenders are arrested, released from jail, commit more crime, and are arrested again, frequently. They blame Proposition 36 for speeding up this cycle. Law enforcement officers are frustrated with the proponents of the legislation because they believe “the public was misinformed about who the true drug addicts are.” Also, they are incensed by the perceived lack of punishment associated with Proposition 36 and believe Proposition 36 is a failure as a deterrent. Finally, officers are frustrated because, in their opinion, treatment is not working for the vast majority of offenders.

–  –  –

Law enforcement officers, by virtue of their job, see the worst segments of society on a regular basis. Proposition 36 has not changed this, and it may have unintentionally magnified the situation. Officers contend they are arresting the same people over and over without the 90 day pause (typical jail sentence) that was customary before Proposition 36 went into effect. They argue that Prop36 simply accelerated the speed of the revolving door43. The following comments are

representative of the general feeling amongst patrol officers interviewed:

Prop36 is a piece of shit. I don’t think it has done one bit of good.

I arrest them. They get out on Prop36. They violate their probation while out on Prop36, get arrested for that, then go to court for that and get Prop36 again; repeatedly violating Prop36…it is lunacy. You’ve created a second chance and within that second chance you’ve created a third chance and a fourth chance.

I can’t tell you how many times you get a dope charge on someone and they [shrug] and say “I’m just going to get Prop [36].” It creates frustration within the police department. It is an absolute revolving door.

It’s so frustrating. These people [drug offenders] laugh at you [police officers].

–  –  –

Actually, it turned out worse than I ever thought it would. Really. I didn’t think it would be this bad as far as the revolving door and recidivism. I’m a pessimist by nature ‘cause I’m a cop, but even I didn’t think it would be this bad.

Only the bad guys are benefiting from Prop36. When we can arrest a guy four or five times and he just keeps going to Prop36 something is wrong with the system.

I’ve arrested people 5-6 times for possession of meth. They laugh and then say they’ll just go to more classes.

Pittman and Gordon (1958) and Aaronson et al (1981, 1984) reported the same finding in separate studies of public drunkenness policies.

The issue, as officers see it, is that addicts are criminals. Not necessarily because they take drugs, but because they commit other crimes to support their habit.

For officers, this appears to be the main concern with Proposition 36, as every law enforcement officer interviewed emphasized that drug offenders (at least the ones they arrest on a regular basis) are also committing other crimes such as burglary, fraud, and identity theft. Research supports their contention (Chaiken & Chaiken, 1982). In fact, a recent National Drug Intelligence Center bulletin revealed that methamphetamine abusers and distributors throughout the United States, but especially in California and other Western states, commit a significant amount of identity theft (MacCoun & Reuter, 1998; National Drug Intelligence Center, 2007). The bottom line is that officers do not believe that most drug offenders, especially parolees, are deserving of Proposition 36 diversion.

If it were based on criminal history we would have no problem with it.

If I have an offender who has a couple speeding tickets and a possession charge; I have no problem with him going into rehab. The problem I have is the people arrested for robbery, burglary, crimes against people that are getting this when they should be locked up.

Probably the majority of people I arrest for theft-related crimes have been through Prop36 or are narcotics offenders. The same people getting treatment are the same people out breaking into cars and houses, cashing checks, and identity theft.

It’s always talked about this poor guy or gal who gets arrested for drugs. But how many of these offenders who get arrested for drugs are auto thieves, robbers, and any other crime you can think of. They are in jail now because of possession but their background is in robbery, auto burglary, residential burglary, you name it.

How do you make the connection between the four meth freaks we hooked up two nights ago for stealing all that mail, and mail (theft)?

Because at no where on this arrest form (for mail theft) is there going to be any charges for drug related crimes. Yet, they are stealing the mail to create identity theft to get cash to buy drugs. Every police officer will tell you that, that is common sense.

Officers are primarily interested in the effect that drug addiction has on crime rates and “innocent” victims (children, spouses, nameless victims). As crime fighters, officers rely on a variety of tools to prevent and control crime. Proposition 36 nullified the extended benefit of one of the most popular tools they use, narcotics violation arrests. Frequently an officer can arrest an individual he/she suspects of committing property (or other types of) crime on a drug violation, as drug violations are relatively easy to articulate and prove, unlike property crimes. The purpose of arresting on the narcotics violation is to incapacitate the offender in jail for a period of time so they cannot commit other crimes. Whereas a narcotics arrest would often keep an offender off the streets for up to 90 days prior to Prop36, it now only puts offenders out of action for a weekend (and sometimes only a couple of hours). This once commonly used tool no longer serves its intended incapacitative function because Proposition 36 eliminated jail sentences for narcotics offenders. This is frustrating for officers and substantiates their belief that Proposition 36 undermines their efforts at crime control.

It’s not the possessing of the drugs. But that is what you can arrest them for, because if you’re not there to catch ‘em breaking into cars and you’re not going to be; to get to the root of the problem, you’re going to have to incarcerate them.

It is difficult to catch him in the act of that (burglary) unless you are in a position where you can set up and surveil him, so you are going to trying to get him off the street because he is causing you problems. You are taking a bunch of theft reports regardless of which city he lives in and you know he is doing it, people are telling you he is doing it. So you arrest him for dope and he is out a week later and the burglaries continue again then you arrest him again.

–  –  –

Law enforcement officers feel the public is not well informed about who the typical drug users are in society. They feel embittered by a campaign that, they feel, misled the public and portrayed drug users as young, clean-cut, college-bound men who made a one time mistake. The high functioning, low-level users portrayed in the campaign commercials are not representative, they argue, of the low functioning, high-level users arrested by law enforcement officers on a regular basis. UCLA studies confirm that most Proposition 36 clients are in fact, long-time users who have more severe addictions than stakeholders had initially anticipated.

I think the voters in California were duped into believing, and this is my opinion, that drugs are an illness and it’s not a crime. People were compassionate about wanting to help other people. Their hearts are in the right place. But I don’t think the information they were given was completely correct. I think the way it was sold to them was that all these offenders for minor offenses are being sentenced to prison sentences for a long time for minor drug offenses and I don’t really think from working here that is true. It is not what we see.

All these people see these commercials and think that could be my son or daughter; I have to vote for this. They don’t show the offender who has been doing this for 10-20 years, who has been in and out of jail.

That is the side of the proposition they never talked about.

–  –  –



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