• August 2019 •

From Juan Navarro, Executive Director
Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse

Unintended Consequences of Justice Reform

L.A. CADA’s recent community conference focused on the unintended consequences of California’s criminal justice reform, first enacted to reduce prison overcrowding. L.A. CADA was and remains a strong advocate for systems change — the war on drugs disproportionately and negatively impacts those we serve, particularly low-income people of color. But rapid reform can be worse than none.

In 2014, Proposition 47 reclassified several nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors, ignoring crucial distinctions. For example, possession of date rape drugs is now a minor offense, but that’s not the worst flaw.  An L.A. Times analysis found Proposition 47 emboldens repeat offenders. Now, addicts who steal under $950 at a time to pay for their habits are only guilty of misdemeanors, and unlikely to face pursuit and punishment. Plus, the measure has no mechanism to compel chronic offenders into drug treatment. The California Police Chiefs Association reports treatment participation actually decreased because of the legislation.

Proposition 57, approved by voters in 2016, made it easier for nonviolent felons to win parole. Again, its authors failed to sweat the details, using an over-broad list of nonviolent crimes, including rape of an unconscious person and violent child abuse. In 2018, a judge ruled that California could not retroactively rewrite the measure and deny early release to thousands of violent sex offenders.

Assembly Bill 1080, passed in 2018, is no better. It appears to allow charges to be put on hold and dismissed if a judge rules the offense results from a mental disorder that a mental health expert says is treatable. Potential for abuse is enormous. With help from slick lawyers and paid experts, there’s little doubt that mental health disorders will be faked, while offenders in real need of treatment are incarcerated for lack of the right representation. Such unintended consequences threaten to undo any good accomplished by justice reform.

Learn more: Smash and Grab Crime in CA


Charlie S.

“My name is Charlie. I’m 31 and I’m in recovery today. It’s wasn’t easy, but I did it. What did I do out there? Honey, to get my drugs, I did anything and everything you can think of. It was a crazy life – not sayin’ it wasn’t fun, ‘cuz it was. For a while. That’s the thing, drugs is fun for a while and then it gets ugly. You end up doin’ things you swore you would never do because you need the fix. You need the high. I was a liar, a thief, a cheater, a piece of you know what. And that was to my friends and family. If you was my enemy, poor you. Ok, so I would have probably gone on that way forever, but I forged a big check and ended up in jail. Oh, well. Do the crime, do the time, honey. But something was different this time. They gave me a chance to get into a program, and I went for it – a treatment program. For some reason, I listened to those people. They understood me and I wanted to know more. Now, here I am over one year sober, and goin’ strong.”

Moral Reconation Therapy

We often say criminal offenders have “stinkin thinkin’”– meaning an antisocial, criminal thought process that governs their behaviors. One example would be “that person doesn’t need this car as much as I do, so I’m taking it.” L.A. CADA supports the use of an evidence-based practice called Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) to help criminal offenders with behavioral health disorders change their negative thought patterns.

MRT is a systematic treatment strategy that works to decrease recidivism among criminal offenders by increasing moral reasoning. Using cognitive-behavioral therapy, MRT progressively addresses ego, social, moral, and positive behavioral growth.

This EBP takes the form of group and individual counseling using structured group exercises and prescribed homework assignments. The MRT workbook is structured around 16 steps (units) focusing on seven basic treatment issues: confrontation of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors; assessment of current relationships; reinforcement of positive behavior and habits; positive identity formation; enhancement of self-concept; decrease in hedonism / development of frustration tolerance; and the development of higher stages of moral reasoning. Participants meet in groups once or twice weekly and can complete all steps of the MRT program in a minimum of 3 to 6 months.

Learn more: Ten Thinking Errors of Criminal Offenders