When Assembly Bill 109 (called “Realignment“) takes effect Oct. 1, most San Diegans convicted of low-level offenses will no longer be eligible for state prison but will be kept under supervision right here at home. Realignment gives San Diego, and California’s 57 other counties, the flexibility to respond to low-level offenses like personal drug possession in innovative ways.

Rather than simply repeating the state’s failed lock-’em-up approach, San Diego should use its new authority to end incarceration for drug possession and to develop health-centered drug policies, which are both more effective and more cost-effective.

San Diego’s realignment implementation plan, adopted by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, includes guidelines for expanding alternatives to incarceration. This is certainly a good start, but none of the critical details have been worked out. It’s particularly important that the county be smart on drugs, because, according to the county, 85% of the San Diegans no longer eligible for state prison have alcohol and drug problems.

Sooner rather than later, the county’s agencies — in public safety as well as health and human services — need to set out clear policies on alternatives to incarceration for people arrested for drug possession and others for whom it makes sense, and to ensure access to treatment for those who want and need it.

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These policies should end the incarceration of people simply because they possess an illicit substance for personal use or provide a positive drug test, unless they pose a significant threat to the community. The county’s health systems should be responsible for working with those who have an alcohol or drug problem, because they can do so at lower cost and with greater success than law enforcement can. Critically, these policies should be honest about drug use. If a person’s drug use is non-problematic, then mandating treatment is a waste of scarce resources. Many other options are available, including community service.

This is a practical, not soft, approach. If San Diego relies too much on incarceration — whether through lengthy sentences or short-term jail stays euphemistically called “flash incarceration” — the county will suffer immediate and long-term jail overcrowding. After 40 years of the war on drugs, there can be no doubt that incarceration has failed to prevent or address our communities’ alcohol and drug problems.

It is important, too, that San Diego not just expand alternatives to incarceration, but also alternatives to conviction in order to avoid the life-long barriers associated with a criminal record. People with a conviction on their record — even for a petty offense — can face significantly diminished employment opportunities and much lower lifetime earnings. They may also be prohibited from accessing student loans, food stamps and other public assistance. This works against individual, family and community wellbeing and public safety.

Community support will be critical to shaping these new policies. At the Board of Supervisors hearing this week, Supervisor Dianne Jacob expressed concern about “state criminals” coming to San Diego. But the reality is that they are San Diegans. They are our coworkers, neighbors, and loved ones. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect — and to have access to drug treatment.

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, a San Diego resident, is deputy state director in Southern California with the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading organization working to end the war on drugs.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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