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California Attorney General vs. Drug Policy Alliance: A Debate on California’s Prop 5

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Voters in thirty-five states will be casting their ballot for more than the next president of this country Tuesday. They will also be deciding on more than 150 ballot initiatives in states across the country. We look at one of the most closely watched: Proposition 5 in California, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act. We host a debate with California state Attorney General Jerry Brown and Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Voters in thirty-five states will be casting their ballot for more than the next president of this country. They will also be deciding the fate of 153 ballot initiatives on subjects ranging from gay marriage to renewable energy, affirmative action, abortion, the prison system, stem cell research, children’s health insurance and the safety of the farm animal.

It’s an important issue in California, where twelve propositions will appear on the state ballot Tuesday. Proposition 5, or the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, would require the state of California to expand and increase funding and oversight for individualized treatment and rehabilitation programs for nonviolent drug offenders and parolees and reduce criminal consequences of nonviolent drug offenses.

A wide coalition of supporters say it will help reduce overcrowding in the state’s burgeoning prison population, the largest in the country. They also argue it could change the way the war on drugs has been waged domestically, by providing treatment rather than jail for nonviolent drug offenses.

But the proposition has a number of opponents, including five California governors, the California prison guards union and the National Drug Control Policy Director. They argue it’s expensive, sets up an unwieldy and unaccountable bureaucracy, and have called it a “drug dealer’s bill of rights.”

Today, we host a debate on California’s Proposition 5. Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and Drug Policy Alliance Network, the leading organizations in the US promoting alternatives to the war on drugs. He supports Prop 5 and joins me here in our firehouse studio in New York.

We’re joined on the telephone by California Attorney General and former Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, served as governor of California from ’74 to ’82 and ran for the Democratic nomination in the 1992 presidential election, defeating Bill Clinton in five states. Jerry Brown is opposed to Proposition 5.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ethan Nadelmann, let’s begin with you. Why do you support it?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, this is a model of how to be dealing with the problems of prison overcrowding and with the drug problem in the United States. California prisons’ population has virtually tripled in recent decades. They were spending at least $5 billion on the prison system in 2000; now it’s $10 billion. It’s eating up ten percent of the state budget. They have the highest recidivism rate in the country among state prison systems. People who have drug problems just keep being cycled more and more back into the system.

So, basically, with Prop 5, which you have as a model for how to deal with this, it’s based upon all of the recommendations of former governors’ independent commissions. It’s one that would reduce the California prison population by roughly 20,000 nonviolent offenders, in a way that would simultaneously reduce crime and recidivism. It would effectively shift a billion dollars a year from prison and parole over to the treatment and rehabilitation side. It would save taxpayers over $2 billion, because new prisons would not need to be built. And it would hold people accountable, not just the people getting caught up because of drug problems; it would also hold the drug court judges and the rest of the criminal justice system accountable. One thing that California has lacked horribly over the last few decades is any notion of accountability on the part of people in the prison-industrial complex. That’s what we’re seeing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: California Attorney General Jerry Brown, why do you oppose it?

JERRY BROWN: Well, I couldn’t differ more from what he’s saying. First of all, it’s profoundly undemocratic. To change any of its hundreds of provisions scattered over thousands, if not tens of thousands, of pages requires a four-fifth majority. That is completely against the notion of majoritarian democracy.

Number two, it is so abstruse, so esoteric, that I would bet you there aren’t five people in the world that even understand it. It’s extremely difficult to gather. It’s like one of these complicated mortgage instruments that, just by their complexity, they act as a deception on the user. There’s no way the voters, by voting — by being asked to vote yes or no, can really respond intelligently to such a grab bag of provisions.

Number three, there’s no proof that this is going to reduce the prison population. In California, more than 60 percent of the prisoners leave prison each year. That’s 120,000 people. The problem is, they come back. And they come back because they don’t have the education, they don’t have the training, they don’t have the job skills, and they don’t have the supervision while they’re in the community.

And what should have been done was to present to the people a simple measure that could be understand — could be understood, and that could include more of the indeterminate sentence, which was abolished. And I have to say, I did that back in the ’70s. When I was governor, the recidivism rate, the first few years before we changed that law, was under 30 percent. Now it is up to 60 to 70 percent. We have far fewer people in prison, and the prison budgets were lower. Nadelmann and his friends created Prop 36. The prisons have risen in spite of that, I believe empowering the drug courts, giving them more money, giving more room for training, more room for supervision and reentry programs. We have a $7 billion program ready to go under an AB900 program, where the state hasn’t been able to spend it.

Finally, the complexity of these two bureaucracies, one having twenty-one voting members, one having twenty-three, is going to bog down — it’s full of providers who get the money that some of the — that one of the bureaucracies mandates and defines. This thing is a gigantic mess that is not going to reduce prison populations. It’s going to not help people. Drug addiction is a very powerful force, and you need accountability, short stays in jail, particularly, that the drug courts provide. Nadelmann and his friends wouldn’t work with the drug courts. They have a hostility to it. Their real agenda is to legalize drugs. I live in a drug-infested neighborhood with halfway houses on my block. I’ve been there for five years. I can tell you, it’s a horror out in the streets when you see these people. You’ve got to provide some coercion along with help and treatment and education.

AMY GOODMAN: Ethan Nadelmann?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, let me just put it this way: Jerry Brown is bought and paid for by the prison-industrial complex.

JERRY BROWN: You know, let’s not [inaudible]

ETHAN NADELMANN: There’s a — shut up, Jerry! There’s a $1 million — there’s a $1 million —-

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have a civilized discussion -—

JERRY BROWN: All the judges in California —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: Jerry, Jerry, stop talking.

JERRY BROWN: This guy is not telling the truth.


AMY GOODMAN: One at a time.


AMY GOODMAN: But it has to be a civilized discussion.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Right now, Jerry, you want to be governor -— Jerry, you want to be governor one day, you —- there’s a $1 million ad campaign paid for by the prison guards.

JERRY BROWN: You know, what about the billionaires who are funding you?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Excuse me. Jerry. Jerry.

JERRY BROWN: You’ve got [inaudible] billionaires -—

ETHAN NADELMANN: Jerry, why don’t you stop talking and let me talk?

JERRY BROWN: — that keep you afloat.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Jerry? Jerry, there’s a one —-

AMY GOODMAN: OK. Attorney General Jerry Brown -—


AMY GOODMAN: — we’re going to give you equal time to respond.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Yes, OK. There’s now a $1 million paid ad campaign on TV in the Bay Area featuring Jerry Brown, the guy who’s supposed to be in charge of the system. This guy stood up with three Republican governors and the former governor, Gray Davis, who took millions of dollars from the prison guards union to denounce his initiative. He says this thing is anti-democratic? It’s anti-democratic when the prosecutors and the prison guards union put millions of dollars into the system to buy the politicians going in.

This initiative right here is based upon the best of scientific evidence. And when you look at what’s in here, when this thing was not put on the ballot —-

JERRY BROWN: That’s not true. That is simply not true.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Jerry? Jerry? I allowed you to talk. Give me the politeness to allow me to talk as well.

JERRY BROWN: Alright. Go ahead.

ETHAN NADELMANN: OK? We did not move forward, me and my colleagues in California, without having first gone to talk to people in Sacramento. And state legislators said to us, “You know, we normally don’t like the ballot initiative process, but the system in Sacramento is busted and broken, and the only way to get sensible, responsible sentencing reform in the state is through the ballot initiative process.”

When this thing was drafted, we pulled in all of the best experts around the state. If the drug court judges are opposed to this thing, it’s solely because of ideology, because they do not want to be held accountable. They do not want to be held accountable. So this is about helping the -— and when Jerry Brown says that this is not going to reduce cost or this is not going to reduce California’s prison population, he is not acknowledging the results, not of us and of the advocates, but of the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, an independent body that has concluded that this is the only initiative on the ballot that will save taxpayers money, and this will responsibly reduce the prison population. This is basically about giving people with drug problems a second chance. It has got accountability up the gazoo for people who are involved in any sorts of other crimes.

Go to the Huffington Post and read the blogs that are done by Dan Abrahamson and Dave Fratello, both co-authors of Prop 5, who Jerry Brown did not bother even to talk to, notwithstanding our efforts to try to talk with him. Then you can read Jerry Brown’s blog and read the rejoinder to it that will be up later today, and you’ll see that one sentence after another in his blog is full of mistakes, full of inaccuracies, full of exaggerations. He is doing the worst possible thing for the people of California.

AMY GOODMAN: California Attorney General Jerry Brown, your response?

JERRY BROWN: You know, it’s kind of a sad — because this is really — the whole drug addiction is a tragedy. And this kind of ad hominem argument is really not to the point. The prison guards, it’s true, have put up ads. The ads, by the way, that I was in did not say vote no. It said go to — go look at this, and I expressed the arguments of both sides.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Yeah, one press conference after another saying something —-

AMY GOODMAN: Don’t interrupt.

JERRY BROWN: Wait a minute, Ethan. Let me talk. Secondly, the other side has, you know, a handful of billionaires that paid for all this. This isn’t subject to any kind of public debate.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Right, billionaires who are the leading advocates of human rights around the world -—

JERRY BROWN: They list this thing as secret, and you would not talk to the judges. These are —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: —- unlike the prison guards and the beer distributors putting up your money.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, Ethan, please.

JERRY BROWN: Hey, wait. You’re so — come on. Just let someone else talk. You passed Prop 38. The prison population went up.

ETHAN NADELMANN: No, Prop 36 reduced the population the first few years, Jerry.

JERRY BROWN: Secondly, the fact that the guards, by the way —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: Jerry, you got that wrong.

JERRY BROWN: Wait. Wait. You won’t let anyone talk.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Prop 36 reduced the population the first two years.

AMY GOODMAN: Ethan Nadelmann, let him -— let the Attorney General respond.

JERRY BROWN: You’ve become totally overcome by your feelings here. Look, I care about this stuff. I know what drug addiction is about. I see it every day in Oakland. And I don’t think without the power of some threat of incarceration by the drug court judges you’re going to get anywhere.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Jerry, you didn’t talk to a single person on drug treatment!

AMY GOODMAN: Just one second.


JERRY BROWN: God, you’re — what’s wrong with you, Ethan?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

JERRY BROWN: You’ve become completely obsessed.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Jerry, you got the numbers wrong.

JERRY BROWN: Let me say a word or two.

ETHAN NADELMANN: You got the stats wrong. You got the facts wrong.

JERRY BROWN: Look, I’m not going to let you talk, if you’re not going to let me say what my piece is here. I am as concerned about drug addiction as you are. The prison guards are now joining with plaintiffs’ attorneys to try to, you know, totally change the prison system. Yes, we need some initiatives, but this thing cannot be understood by the average person. It’s a complete abuse. And the fact that you won’t let it be changed except by four-fifths after you lock into law so many esoteric provisions whose consequence no rational person can understand, this is not about saving money, it’s writing in little entitlements that the plaintiffs’ bar will sue on, and it will cost billions of dollars. It will leave these poor unfortunate people mired in their addiction. Some of them need the hammer of a drug court.

And the drug court judges and all the — the Judges Association and all the probation chiefs in California are against this thing. So just don’t talk about the prison guards. They’re something on their own there. I believe when we have the indeterminate sentence and we have work in prison and get real skill training, that — and we have a parole system where we could supervise and help people, that’s when we had low prison — the lower incarceration rates and better —- lower recidivism.


JERRY BROWN: That’s what we need to get back to.

AMY GOODMAN: Ethan Nadelmann, your response?

JERRY BROWN: I’m not saying the legislature has been any good. They’ve been a disaster. The system —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: You know, Jerry, quite frankly, when the voters of California -— when the voters — Jerry, when the voters — Jerry?

AMY GOODMAN: OK, we’re going to give Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: Thank you, Jerry.

AMY GOODMAN: —- a chance to respond.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Jerry, when the voters of California passed Prop 36 in 2000, that was the first time in twenty years that the California prison population, it actually went down.

JERRY BROWN: No, it went up. It went up.

ETHAN NADELMANN: That thing has successfully — we diverted —- no, no, no, it went down the first couple years.

JERRY BROWN: That’s not true. The population is the highest number ever, right now.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Jerry, get your numbers straight and be quiet, OK? You know, then, over 100,000 people have been successfully diverted. Prop 36 doubled state -—

JERRY BROWN: That’s not true.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Prop 36 doubled state funding —-

JERRY BROWN: That’s not true.

ETHAN NADELMANN: —- while saving taxpayers over a billion dollars. Now, Prop 5 is —-

JERRY BROWN: 80 percent of the people -—

ETHAN NADELMANN: — meant — excuse me, Jerry. Excuse me.

AMY GOODMAN: Let Ethan Nadelmann respond.

JERRY BROWN: 80 percent — 80 percent of the people —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: Excuse me, Jerry. Jerry. Jerry, your stats -—

JERRY BROWN: It’s not true. This pure propaganda.

ETHAN NADELMANN: — are wrong, up the gazoo. You don’t know your numbers. You don’t know your facts.



JERRY BROWN: I do know the facts, Ethan.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Proposition 5 —-

JERRY BROWN: I know them a lot.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Proposition 5, Proposition 5 -—

JERRY BROWN: I’ve spent hours on this thing.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Proposition 5 —-

JERRY BROWN: This is a very deceptive proposition.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Proposition 5, Proposition 5 -—

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney General —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: Proposition 5 -—

AMY GOODMAN: — let Ethan Nadelmann respond —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: Proposition 5 -—

AMY GOODMAN: — and then we’ll you the response.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Proposition 5 improves upon Prop 36. The reason the prison population stopped — started heading up again was because your friends in the prison-industrial complex hijacked the damn thing.

JERRY BROWN: You don’t use [inaudible]. Make your point on their own merits.

ETHAN NADELMANN: They hijacked the damn thing, OK?

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you specifically focus on the prison guards? What is their interest in this, Ethan Nadelmann?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, I think the prison guards — I mean, what is the one union in America who gets —- becomes more powerful and gets their overtime pay by incarcerating as many of their fellow citizens as possible? That’s the prison guards union. And when they gave Gray Davis millions of dollars, or when they’re spending a million dollars right now for a puff piece featuring Jerry Brown, you know, denouncing Prop 5, that’s corrupt.

JERRY BROWN: I think, first of all -—

ETHAN NADELMANN: He wants to talk about democracy?

JERRY BROWN: — there’s a corruption of the process —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: You know, a ballot initiative process has the opportunity for the public to say yea or nay. But when you have people inside the system, inside the system -—

JERRY BROWN: The prison guard thing is completely off the point.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Excuse me, Jerry. When the prison guards union are buying the politicians and buying the political system and buying a guy who wants to be governor —-

JERRY BROWN: What do you think your billionaire friends are doing?

ETHAN NADELMANN: —- that’s not democratic. That’s not democratic.

JERRY BROWN: You’re being bought and paid for by [inaudible] billionaires.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, final response —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: You know, maybe, maybe -—

AMY GOODMAN: — Attorney General Jerry Brown —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: —- maybe —-

AMY GOODMAN: —- final response?

JERRY BROWN: My response is this —-

ETHAN NADELMANN: —- if the drug people in drug treatment had half the money of the prison guards, Jerry —-

JERRY BROWN: —- if he could keep quiet for a second, which I doubt.

ETHAN NADELMANN: — you’d have a different perspective on this.

AMY GOODMAN: OK. We’re going to give you the final word, Attorney General Jerry Brown.

JERRY BROWN: Yeah, the judges, who are most objective, they’re opposing this thing.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Yeah, but they’re staffing [inaudible] —-

AMY GOODMAN: Let him respond.

JERRY BROWN: You know, prison guards are one piece. You guys wrote it in secret. You won’t work with the drug courts, who, in many cases, have over a 50 percent success rate. And I think what your Prop 38 did, it has not had success. Over 70 percent of the people drop out of the damn program. It’s not working.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Yeah, except you’re totally wrong in terms of independent evaluations, Jerry.

JERRY BROWN: And I think if you want to use an initiative, you need an understandable initiative that will return the indeterminate sentence, give more job training, more parole supervision and give some decent treatment that actually works.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Yeah, Jerry, and it wouldn’t have been a secret if you had answered your damn phone.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank Attorney General Jerry Brown of California -— he is opposed to Proposition 5 — and Ethan Nadelmann, who is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance and Drug Policy Alliance Network. Obviously, this is a very controversial issue. The vote is tomorrow, and we will certainly follow up. We’ll be announcing, if the results are in tomorrow night or the next day in the morning — we’ll be here to broadcast not only what’s happening with the presidential race and on down with political races, but also ballot initiatives around the country.

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