Gascon offers solution to reduce prison overcrowding

September 10, 2013 5:14:24 PM PDT
With a court order hanging over the state to release thousands of prisoners to county jails, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon says its jails are capable of handling more inmates. The reason, Gascon says, is because low-level drug offenders are being given a second chance outside of jail.

Gascon is advocating for a change in the law that would make possession of drugs a misdemeanor. In the meantime, Gascon is implementing his own alternatives to incarceration and he says it's working. Prosecutions for possession of drugs in San Francisco are down by almost 70 percent. That may be a big reason why a lot of the county jail cells are empty.

"We're probably the only urban county today in the state that's running consistently about a third vacancy," Gascon told ABC7 news. He says his office is diverting drug users to community-based services where they can be treated for their addiction, rather than incarcerating them. They include split sentences where addicts serve a portion of time in jail and a portion in treatment programs.

Gascon says if other counties did the same, the state's prisons would not be overcrowded and the governor would not have to release prisoners as the courts have ordered. "The evidence today tells us that if we can actually deal with the underlying drug use problem, we're likely to reduce all the other criminalities," he said.

Gascon says the state should change the law to make possession of drugs for personal use a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Lenore Anderson heads the group "Californians for Safety and Justice." She agrees that a prison-first approach isn't working.

"What we know is, that's resulted in high recidivism rates for people coming out of state prison system, 60 to 70 percent. It's also been very, very costly," she said. Anderson says between one-half to two-thirds of inmates serving time for drug possession end up back in prison within three years.

Not everyone supports changing drug possession to a misdemeanor. Police Officers Association President Marty Halloran, a former narcotics officer, is concerned that as a misdemeanor, addicts could just be cited on the street and then released without forcing them to go through diversion programs. He says if that were the case, they would most likely re-offend.