Chapter 3 of Cheap on Crime opens with a 2009 headline from the San Francisco Chronicle, which reads, “Many Contra Costa Crooks Won’t Be Prosecuted.” Who are said “crooks”? D.A. Kochly explains: “[B]eginning May 4, his office will no longer prosecute felony drug cases involving smaller amounts of narcotics. That means anyone caught with less than a gram of methamphetamine or cocaine, less than 0.5 grams of heroin and fewer than five pills of ecstasy, OxyContin or Vicodin won’t be charged.”
This was viewed with suspicion and scorn at the time; Kochly lamented the lack of funds and said, “We had to make very, very difficult choices, and we had to try to prioritize things. There are no good choices to be made here. . . It’s trying to choose the lesser of certain evils in deciding what we can and cannot do.”
Compare that to today’s headline: The Mercury News informs us that “Santa Clara County DA will stop filing charges in most minor drug cases.” The policy is basically the same as the one from Contra Costa ten years ago: “the aim of the change is to keep one- and two-time offenders out of the court system, diverting them instead to drug treatment programs and reserving bandwidth for more serious addiction cases that cross over to become community nuisances or public-safety concerns.” Again, costs are cited, in the grand humonetarian fashion: “the policy shift also cuts out an exponentially larger number of corresponding court dates, potential bench warrants and jail stays and thousands of work hours for judges, attorneys and police officers. All of those efforts go to address offenders that everyone agrees might have addiction issues but do not pose a threat to public safety.” Same news, different spin. What used to be regarded with scorn at the very beginning of the Cheap on Crime era has now gone mainstream. Note how easy and acceptable (and non-radical!) it is for a prosecutor (!) to cite cost expenses (!) as a justification for diverting nonviolent offenders into a public health treatment silo.In many ways, this is the coda to Cheap on Crime: the ultimate success of the cost-centered rhetoric in normalizing the decarceration of nonviolent offenders. Years after recovering from the recession, the thinking patterns formed during the recession are here: marijuana should be legalized for revenue and so that our resources can be spent on the “real” offenders; treatment and prevention are cheaper than punishment; crime rates are low, and therefore there is no risk to public safety. It’s nice to see this trend continue to play out on the state level, at the heart of the consensus, while War on Drugs dinosaurs rage in the White House.