Assemblyman Tim Donnelly Crosses Party Lines to Support Drug Reform

SB 649, a bill introduced by California State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), allows judges and prosecutors the discretion to shift drug possession between a felony and a misdemeanor depending on context. It recently passed the Assembly largely along party lines, with ten Democrats and two Republicans voting across the aisle.

The vote is notable because one Republican, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks, is one of Sacramento’s most conservative voices. After the vote, he stated he was “deeply conflicted,” but that the “war on drugs is a colossal failure,” acknowledging that his ambivalence was likely a “shock” to his hardline base.

Politicians in either party have long used crime and public safety as platforms for uncontroversial no-tolerance crime-fighting policies. A rise in crime in the 1970s prompted a series of “tough-on-crime” legislation through the 80s and 90s upon which many politicians, contractors, and correctional unions made their careers.

Rising crime and fear of it continued to justify no-tolerance, and American justice rose to meet it. Since the 1970s the incarceration rate multiplied five times and public safety spending skyrocketed, while crime has remained relatively level.

According to Bruce Western, Criminal Justice professor at Harvard and advocate for correctional reform, the original crime wave was stimulated by defunded social programs that stabilized at-risk populations, the very safety nets reformers now fight to provide.

“Dollars diverted from education made their way to prison construction,” he wrote, echoing last year’s press around corrections out-competing education in California’s budget.

As evidence that harsh punishments were doing little to deter criminality mounted, so did the frequency of therapeutic pilot programs getting encouraging results. “Evidence” in a newly polarized context, however, is relative when outcomes require years of patience and a public backlash. “Public safety” was divided neatly along party lines into those proudly chasing the symptom and those apologetically chasing the cure, when the solution is actually an exhaustively determined combination of the two.

Like other GOP rank-breakers, Donnelly’s ideological journey is borne of personal experience. Before running he worked for eight years in “prison ministry” at a fire-fighting camp in San Bernardino County, teaching Bible study and life skills to low security inmates. Reforming corrections was a top priority in Sacramento: Donnelly penned both a failed bill and an open letter to Brown seeking to expand the “critical safety valve” of private prisons, claiming reduced costs.

There is truth to that: California spends $75 less for private versus state inmates. Elsewhere in America, however, minimal savings and lapses in staff oversight have raised concerns about private incarceration’s efficacy. After Brown finally echoed Donnelly’s recommendations by introducing an emergency initiative to expand private contracts, Democratic lawmakers rebelled against the “short-sighted” strategy, forcing a compromise the day before Donnelly’s “wobbler” vote.

The crux of any conservative argument for evidence-based crime-fighting is budgetary; the most effective options must be the least costly. Last year, the LAO estimated that if California were to charge all possession as misdemeanors, the counties would see annual savings of about $159 million, with an additional $64 million in state savings, to be rerouted into developing the very recovery programs that will replace detention time.

The only autonomous pretrial services agency in California runs yearly on $5 million, yet saves $32 million for Santa Clara in arrest, truancy, and pretrial detention costs. Impacts are exponential: court truancy’s cut in half with a simple reminder call, and San Francisco’s cost-effective gauntlet of individualized counseling has cut participant recidivism close to nil.

If numbers can’t cut through the partisan noise, then perceptions equating leniency with amnesty must be broken. The research on SB 649’s target demographic suggests that addictive behavior responds better to the promise of reward than to unequivocal punishment.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says:

“Rewards and sanctions are most likely to change behavior when they are certain to follow the targeted behavior,when they follow swiftly, and when they are perceived as fair.”

On private incarceration, Donnelly is still supportive. However, he’s wise enough not to discount the unexpected. Effective corrections is fundamentally nonpartisan: Improving safety and saving money. His vote illuminates a critical capacity to draw from a well of experience deeper than party obligation.