Former SJPD Police Chief Leads on Reforming State Drug Laws

Any time Samantha Rogers fills out an application—for a job, housing, education or assistance—she freezes. These forms all have the dreaded box and the accompanying question: Have you committed a felony? Rogers knows that telling the truth will almost certainly make rejection inevitable.

“It makes me feel like they’re not going to allow me to get past my history, because they’re going to keep reminding me that I’m a criminal or a felon,” Rogers says. “That was my past—it’s not who I am today.”

Growing up in a middle-class family in San Jose, Rogers was sexually abused at the age of four—a secret she didn’t tell anyone until a few years ago—leading her on a downward spiral in her teen years, which eventually resulted in an addiction to crack cocaine. Instead of finding treatment she was arrested for drug possession several times in her 20s before landing in Central California Women’s Facility. She spent the next 17 years in and out of prison.

After being released in 2010, Rogers enrolled in recovery and support groups with the California Coalition of Women’s Prisoners (CCWP) and worked to turn her life around. Today the 47-year-old mother of four, warm and easy with a laugh, is a part-time program assistant for the CCWP in San Francisco, where she leads the re-entry program to get women like herself back on their feet after getting out of prison.

This position, Rogers says, allows her to “give back and support what’s right,” a phrase she uses repeatedly. She’s now following the footsteps of her mother, who spent her career working with victims of domestic violence.

Despite her turnaround, Rogers says, she continues to face extraordinary challenges because of the “felon” label hanging over her head. Even though she committed a nonviolent offense—drug possession—the felony prevents Rogers from accessing food stamps. Finding housing or additional part-time work is nearly impossible. Starting last month, “ban the box” legislation in California went into effect, preventing public sector employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record. Private employers, however, still have free reign to pry into past records.

“I don’t even want to apply because everybody is going to know my background and they’re not going to see me as I am today,” Rogers says. “I don’t think it’s fair for them to say they want to reform people, but not allow them to do what they need to do to take care of themselves.”

A new ballot initiative seeks to address the unduly harsh punishments Rogers and tens of thousands of Californians face—both in and after prison—for nonviolent offenses. The proposal, sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and former San Jose Police Chief Bill Lansdowne, would change certain low-level drug and petty theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors as a way to reduce prison overcrowding. The shift would also redirect billions of dollars from the prison system to education, drug and mental health treatment and victims’ restitution.

After collecting more than 800,000 signatures, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act is set to appear on the statewide ballot this November.

Lansdowne, who retired in February after heading police departments in San Jose, Richmond and most recently San Diego, says the impetus for the ballot initiative came from his 49 years in law enforcement. “People who get a felony conviction have difficulty rebuilding their lives—they can’t vote, they can’t get jobs,” he says. “This bill gives us the chance to say, ‘Yes, you made a mistake, but you have the opportunity to rebuild your life.’ It’s the first time we’ve had prison reform that dedicates the money to addiction recovery, mental health and children.” According to Lansdowne, an estimated $60,000 is spent on each inmate per year, while resources for addiction and mental health services continually suffer. “There’s nowhere they can go to get it,” he says. “It’s sad to say, but probably the largest provider of mental health services today in this country is our jails.”

Instead of spending huge amounts of money locking people up, Lansdowne hopes to move those dollars to programs that would help people avoid incarceration in the first place.

“You can’t arrest your way out of this issue,” Lansdowne says. “The current system is putting people in prison for minor offenses—possession, petty theft—for long periods of time. You can’t warehouse people and expect some success at rebuilding lives or preventing crime.”

Rogers agrees, saying it “would be fabulous” if her felonies could be adjusted to misdemeanors, and if more state resources had been devoted to rehabilitation instead of enforcing the War on Drugs.

“I believe I would have been able to become a better mother and woman, and would have been more productive in society if I had had that kind of support,” she says. “I think if they had tried to address the core of my problems, I probably wouldn’t be just getting my life started right now.”

James Gray, a former Superior Court judge in California, says the ballot initiative is a step in the right direction—and yet another sign that the failed War on Drugs is coming to an end. Like Lansdowne, Gray first became critical of current drug policy while on the job. “It hit me when I was first a judge, starting in late 1983, and we were just turning low-level drug offenders through the system for no good purpose, and in many cases ruining their lives,” he says.

“This is the biggest failed policy in the history of the United States of America, second only to slavery,” adds Gray, who is also the author of the book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It. “Tell me one area of interest, and I’ll tell you how it’s made worse because of our policy of prohibition—whether education, health care, the environment, you name it.”

California had 13 state prisons throughout most of its history, according to Gray, before Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs in 1971. The state now has 34 prisons. California has 117,500 inmates—a growth of 750 percent since Nixon’s presidency and more than those incarcerated in France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Japan and Singapore combined. More than a quarter of drug offenders here end up back in prison within a year of their release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and more than half after five years.

“Probably 40 percent of them are there for nonviolent drug offenses,” Gray says. “You could release many of them outright or release others to drug treatment, and it wouldn’t have any effect on our safety, whatsoever.”

Reforming the nation’s ill-conceived drug laws is not a Left or Right issue, says Gray, who won the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nomination in 2012. From a conservative standpoint, he points to the fiscal damage of the policies and excessive cost of housing inmates. For liberals, he points to the human cost of “putting fathers and mothers in jail and prison and separating families.”

As a result, the bill “absolutely” has bipartisan appeal, according to Lansdowne.

“I think both sides understand that we have to do something about these prisons,” he says. “Warehousing people hasn’t worked. We need more services and this is the responsible way to manage it without putting people at risk.”

Having hit rock bottom and working her way out of the system to help others, Rogers says the bill’s passage will require voters to change the way they view possession crimes.

“The majority of these people are addicts,” she says. “We need support. Locking us up prevents us from doing it, but it doesn’t help us get our lives in order so that when we get out we know how to rehabilitate ourselves and help our families.”

13 Comments

  1. I agree that warehousing drug users has failed, except to swell the ranks of prison guards. However, you chose the wrong poster girl. 47 years old, with four kids, who “freezes” when she applies for “assistance”–the current PC code word for welfare, MediCal, and all the other freebies (free to them, but paid for by law-abiding taxpayers) awarded to folks who have spent “17 years in and out of prison.” Where are the fathers of these four kids? Back in jail or prison? Ms. Rogers has no business bearing four kids she cannot support properly. The biggest fiscal problem in this entire nation is massive numbers of men who father children they cannot or will not support, and the women who bear those children. Mr. Lansdowne’s support for such broad legislation is misguided. For example, public employers will now not be able to find out that the person applying for a job handling money is a convicted embezzler.

  2. I disagree. The court system that is currently in place offers drug offenders multiple opportunities to make right. They have to want to change. Ms. Rodgers finally wanted to make that change (in my opinion). I don’t claim to have the all the answers but I believe that these “low level drug offenses” are not victimless.

  3. > I don’t claim to have the all the answers but I believe that these “low level drug offenses” are not victimless.

    I believe your instincts are correct.

    The narcissists of the drug use culture often have difficulty discerning how the consequences of their behavior affect others and how they affect society in general.

  4. Bill Lansdowne should write a book about his 49 year career. the working title could be “Law Enforcement: The Career that Ate My Brain 39 Years Ago”

    • Hey Meyer,

      The cops I talk to tell me Landsdowne was a well loved cop, a guy who worked up through the ranks and was well respected by the department. The kind of Chief who would hop in a car and be there anytime there was an extreme situation. You kind of paint a picture of a guy without a brain. Just asking, what was your take on his time as Chief? (besides brain eating)

      • Lansdowne was responsible for beginning the downturn of SJPD. Always fearing negative publicity, he put in place a number of procedural changes which made the department less proactive and, as a result, less effective in battling crime. His obvious philosophy was that if department members did less, there was less of a chance that something might go wrong which would make him look bad. He cared more about his career arc than he did about the department’s ability to protect the people of San Jose. This approach was successful for him, as he was able to use SJPD as a springboard to the chief’s job in San Diego, but significantly diminished a once exceptional police department.

        Of course, Lansdowne was a piker compared to Chuck Reed. He only diminished the department, while Reed’s impact has been devastating. I don’t know who you’ve spoken with, but the view I expressed is commonly held within the department.

  5. “The proposal, sponsored by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and former San Jose Police Chief Bill Lansdowne, would change certain low-level drug and petty theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors as a way to reduce prison overcrowding.”

    After Prop 36 in 2000 it is nearly impossible to got to jail much less prison for drug possession. Petty theft has always been a misdemeanor so prison is never an option unless you have a prior. After realignment you generally have to have multiple priors.

    This measure will not reduce the PRISON population by one bit.

  6. Released after spending half her life in prison, but still somehow knocking out four kids, Samantha has a problem with applications for:

    — employment. In a state where illegal aliens often have two jobs, Samantha’s past isn’t keeping her from finding work, it’s keeping her from finding work she doesn’t see as beneath her, the kind for which employers often set hiring standards (based on experience or the competitive market) she doesn’t meet. As it stands now, employers have the choice as to whether or not they want to take a big risk with a hiring choice: this measure is designed to deprive them of that choice.

    — housing. Landlords hate vacancies, and already have the right to rent to drug addicts. Those that don’t likely base their decision on the nightmares and monetary losses associated with such tenants; this measure doesn’t care about their nightmares or monetary losses.

    — education. Does a felony record disqualify one from night school or community college? Or is what Samantha thinks she deserves one of those second-chance, training + freebies programs that doesn’t want to waste its time on career criminals? By the way, almost all of those are run by charities or the social services arm of the government — not exactly the face of Richard Nixon.

    — assistance. Does Samantha’s record disqualify her from the assistance of family and friends? Coming from a middle-class background if she can’t count on friends and family it’s probably because she’s alienated (victimized/traumatized/frightened) every one of them right out of her life. As for public assistance, if she can’t meet the standards for receiving public assistance it’s due to standards set by the government. Is this measure designed so the government can pretend to have standards (or so it can dupe itself)?

    This article is an insult, a perfect example of bull droppings smothered in politically-correct sauce:

    — Food stamps aren’t “accessed,” no more so than a kind person’s spare change is accessed by a street beggar.

    — The prison population didn’t explode after Nixon’s administration (it exploded due to two factors: generations of LBJ’s great society bastards growing up to be criminals, and the government allowing the borders to collapse — that’s why the prison population is black and brown).

    — Prisons are not full of simple drug “possessors.” In California, an otherwise law-abiding drug addict is more likely to be found on the staff of the Mercury News than in a state prison.

    Given the demands of his ego, that former chief Lansdowne (famous race data collector) has his name attached to this measure is not surprising as he no doubt considers that preferable to having it attached to obscurity.

    • …another incredibly insightful and accurate assessment from someone who is a student of the human condition and human nature.

      Roger’s has a job that she says is allowing her to “give back” yet apparently that isn’t good enough. If a person has a job then why do they need food stamps? I have a job and I live within my means.
      12 steps and any other recovery programs are tough to truly live out. Too many of us have seen the “client” (and even more so the client who has spent serious time in jail and/or prison and learned the “survival” mechanisms of manipulation) treat recovery programs as a check-box on the rehabilitation qualification card.

      “I went to jail and now I’m out. I go to meetings therefore I am a model human being and I am now entitled to all the benefits others have worked for and earned.”

      There are far more victims who have suffered all sorts of abuse who never became substance abusers, never went to jail or prison never asked for anything they didn’t earn. This is just another ill-conceived scam to change the rules with the desired outcome being that the imaginary plying field is leveled. The problem here is that there are far more drug and alcohol abusers and recidivating convicts who are professional TAKERS – they are never satisfied with what they have. They demand and demand and demand some more bleeding the system and diminishing others who work hard and deserve far more.

  7. Prop 47 has nothing to do with victimless crimes.

    Possession of meth or heroin is not a wobbler as many suggest. I listed the penal codes below for your reference.

    Meth…..11377(a) H&S
    Heroin/Cocaine…11350(a) H&S

    Also for all of us who are a strong proponent of rehabilitation. We already have prop 36.
    For those who genuinely want help and wish to avoid jail time.

    Possession of date rape drug is not a victimless crime. Most people don’t ingest date rape drugs for personal enjoyment and the lack of memory that follows.

    Prop 47 also lessens the charge for gun theft to a misdemeanor. People only steal guns for one reason.

    Crimes are committed by people of every social economic background. This is not a race or wealth issue this is a safety issue.

    A yes vote for 47 will create more AB109’er on our streets and neighborhoods.
    Please do your research on how many re-offend and you will see this system does not work!

    Also disguising this bill as a “safer schools and neighborhoods ” propaganda is misguided at best!
    There is a reason the CA Police Chiefs Association strongly opposes prop 47!!

    http://www.californiapolicechiefs.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=145:proposition-47&catid=19:site-content&Itemid=209

    Facebook page with more information

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