«From Inception to Implementation: How SACPA has affected the Case Processing and Sentencing of Drug Offenders in One California County DISSERTATION ...»
Research Questions and Methodology SACPA was expected to dramatically change how drug offenders are handled in California; however, it’s potential impact depends heavily on two issues (1) how many offenders who would have been sentenced to prison for drug possession prior to SACPA are eligible for diversion through the law and (2) how different criminal justice actors implement the law (Riley et al., 2000). The aim of the current research project is to address these two related issues; because while we know that approximately 194,000 offenders were sentenced under SACPA in the first four years of the law (Longshore et al., 2003, 2004, 2005; Urada and Longshore, 2007), we do not know how the system adjusted to procedural changes or how many offenders sentenced under SACPA would have gone to prison prior to the law.
The main research question, “what was the impact of Proposition 36 on drug offenders and the criminal justice system in Orange County, California?” is answered using both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies in a case study design. Research methods include: face-to-face interviews with criminal justice practitioners, observations of court proceedings, reviews of internal documents, interrupted time series and other data analyses. By combining multiple research methods (e.g. time series analysis and qualitative interviews) I was able to take advantage of the inherent strengths of each to identify policy impacts that could have been missed by using only one method. For example, interviews with practitioners provided explanations for difficult to understand arrest and sentencing trends and quantitative data authenticated (and in some cases challenged) claims made by criminal justice practitioners. These methods will be described in depth in the following pages.
Proposition 36 placed the responsibility for implementation on California’s 58 counties. For this reason, and because each county is uniquely situated, and because implementation was expected to vary between counties (Percival, 2004; Klein et al.
2004), it would have been imprudent to evaluate the impact of Proposition 36 on county-level criminal justice processes at only the state level of analysis.
Furthermore, because each county is separate and data are not contained in a shared database, it is unrealistic to attempt to collect and analyze data for each of California’s 58 counties. Moreover, the case study approach allows the researcher to identify attitudes and local practices that could not have been captured by existing quantitative data. Thus a single-county case study approach has unique advantages for understanding system response to and impact of this law.
Orange County, the second most populous county in the state (5th in the country), is the case study county. It is an ethnically diverse county located in southern California. Traditionally thought of as politically “conservative,” it is much more complex than that; and because the political climate has changed considerably in recent years the label “conservative” is no longer accurate. It is urban (mainly suburban) and there are 34 cities and more than 3,000,000 residents within Orange County’s 798 square miles. Orange County is home to 11 public and 7 private colleges/universities, including two major state universities and five community colleges. In addition to a highly visible tourist industry, the county has vibrant technology, education, government, healthcare and service/retail sectors. Many people are familiar with Orange County because of Disneyland, the beaches, Richard Nixon, and/or recent television shows (such as Laguna Beach, The O.C., and The Real Desperate Housewives of Orange County). Unfortunately, these shows depict Orange County as one big suburb of rich white people who spend their days pampering themselves and going to the beach. The “real Orange County” is much different, much more ethnically, politically, and economically diverse than these shows would have one believe.
Orange County was chosen as the case study county for three main reasons: (1) generalizability; (2) volume of offenders processed; and (3) data availability. Orange County is very similar to the state on several measures related to SACPA (see Table 4 below), including: SACPA voting behavior, drug offender incarceration rate10, and proportion of felony arrests that are drug related11, as well as drug use prevalence, and some demographic indicators. Orange County is an urban county in which most residents live in small-medium sized suburban communities, which is typical of residents throughout the state. Although generally thought of as quite conservative, Orange County has liberal tendencies on some issues, such as attitudes toward drug offenders and criminal justice rehabilitation. While Orange County is not identical to the state on all matters, it is similar enough to be representative of other counties in the On average, 18% to 27% of felony offenders in Orange County were sentenced to prison between 1990 and 1999 (California Department of Justice Statistics). This is in comparison to a statewide average of 19% to 21% of felony offenders sentenced to prison and to other counties in the state which sent as few as 7% to 11% of felony offenders to prison (i.e. Alameda, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz Counties).
California Department of Justice Criminal Justice Profile, 2002 (Tables 6A and 3B).
state in regards to drug offender case processing and sentencing. Additionally, Orange County handles a high volume of offenders, which is necessary for statistical purposes and data provided by county agencies and the California Department of Justice are free from major errors and can be relied on as accurate for assessing patterns and trends over the study period12,13.
Also, Orange County is unique in some distinct ways that make it an especially valuable county to study. First, Orange County is one of the few counties with a single Proposition 36 court. This ensures that all Proposition 36 defendants are processed by the same judge and treated as consistently as possible. Having only one Proposition 36 court eliminates “judge shopping” by defendants and allows the judge to get a relatively holistic view of Proposition 36: the offenders, their past criminal and drug use histories, their success and the system’s response.
Second, Orange County has unusually forward-thinking criminal justice practitioners. Ex-Sheriff Carona, the county’s top law enforcement officer at the time Proposition 36 was passed, wrote a book advocating treatment instead of incarceration for drug offenders. Furthermore, not only do most law enforcement agencies ascribe to a community oriented policing philosophy, one department (Santa Ana Police Department) is internationally recognized for being a pioneer of community oriented policing (Boettcher, 1995; Skolnick and Bayley, 1986). Also, both the Orange County Probation Department and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office have welltrained research units with multiple highly-educated staff members (an oddity for these types of agencies). The probation department is well-respected throughout California for its research and its innovative programs, including the 8% program that provides wrap-around services for the most at-risk juvenile delinquents on probation in the county. Moreover, Orange County has particularly well-educated law enforcement officers and probation officers; a large percentage have bachelor’s degrees and many have master’s degrees.
Although some might argue that these factors make Orange County too unique to be a good choice for a case study, I disagree. Orange County is “middle-of-theroad” enough to be representative of the state but unique in specific ways that would suggest that if Proposition 36 was going to embraced anywhere (other than San Francisco and a few other liberal counties in Northern California); Orange County might be that county. For these reasons it is a good place to test whether (and how) SACPA impacted drug offenders and the criminal justice system.
The main research question is, “what has been the impact of Proposition 36 on drug offenders and the criminal justice system in Orange County, California?” More specifically, how has SACPA affected the case processing and sentencing of drug offenders and the actors and agencies tasked with processing and supervising drug offenders in Orange County? Research questions were designed to ascertain the impact of the legislation on the offender and the actor/agency at each stage of the criminal justice system; including planning and implementation of the law.
Consequently, the research on the criminal justice system impact at each stage was guided by the overarching question “what were the expected and unexpected impacts of Proposition 36 on these agencies and the actors who work at these agencies?” Conversely, the research on offender case processing and sentencing was guided by more specific questions at each stage, as detailed below. Appendix A contains a list of specific research questions for each stage of the criminal justice process as well as information on the data used to answer the question.
The central issue for offenders at the law enforcement stage was whether there was any change in the number of arrests for drug crimes as a result of SACPA. Did SACPA have either a net widening effect or a pseudo-decriminalization effect? In other words, did law enforcement officers start arresting more drug offenders because treatment was available or did law enforcement officers discontinue arresting drug offenders because they opposed the law and felt that arresting drug offenders for the sake of treatment was a waste of their time?
What other impacts did the legislation have on law enforcement officers and agencies? For example, did officers change their arresting behavior? Did they know enough about the law to change their behavior in order to achieve their desired outcome? Did Prop36 impact the number of confidential informants? Were there any changes to the number of offenders released by law enforcement? Did it impact how patrol officers or narcotics officers spend their time (e.g. did it increase the number of arrests for bench warrants)? These are some of the questions that guided research at this stage.
The questions at the court stage focused on the impact of the legislation on the case processing of drug offenders from arraignment to sentencing. For example, were the numbers of drug cases filed by the district attorney or cases dismissed by the courts affected by the new law? Did SACPA change the number of court cases for drug crimes or how long it takes to process a typical drug case? Additionally, were there any impacts on the plea bargaining process or the number of trials for drug possession offenders? Were offenders more likely to plea bargain, or less likely?
How did these changes impact the Orange County Superior Court, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office and Anaheim City Attorney’s Office?
How did agencies cope with the new law and what was the associated workload impact on practitioners? What new procedures did practitioners implement? Did Proposition 36 negatively impact drug courts in Orange County, as anticipated by the California Association of Drug Court Professionals?
One of the key questions the current research is designed to address is whether there were fluctuations in the number and proportion of offenders convicted of SACPA-eligible drug offenses and sentenced to prison, jail, probation with jail, or probation prior to and following the enactment of SACPA. Additionally, another important research question is, “how many offenders have been diverted from incarceration (prison, jail, probation with jail) in Orange County?” Are drug offenders sentenced to probation after SACPA implementation more serious offenders than before SACPA implementation? Are drug offenders sentenced under SACPA spending fewer days in jail than drug offenders convicted of SACPA-eligible offenses prior to SACPA?
Moreover, what were the impacts on jail operations and jail deputies? Did SACPA increase the number of available beds in the Orange County Jail, as was expected? Were there any impacts on the jail inmate population or the length of time other offenders served on their sentences as a result of SACPA? Did it change how inmates interact with deputies or each other? Similarly, what were the impacts on parole agents and probation officers? The probation department had a central role in implementing Proposition 36 and supervising the offenders, how did the department adapt to the new legislation? Did it change the number of parolees returned to custody on drug violations or the time spent in prison on drug violations?
These are some of the questions that the current research project was intended to address. The following sections describe the data used to answer the questions.
The first section describes the qualitative data, including the study sample as well as the selection and recruitment method, interview process, and the interview instruments. Following the qualitative data section, the quantitative data section describes the method used to define “SACPA-eligible” offenses that are included in the study, as well as a description of the multiple data sources and statistical procedures utilized to assess legislative impact.