WHITTIER -- During his mid-20s, Ken Fisher had all the trappings of success: nice car, girlfriend, dog, lodgings in both West Covina and Santa Barbara, and a good job.
He never imagined that seven years later he would have nothing.
What began as "recreational' drug use limited to the weekend club scene frequented by him and his peers ended up consuming Fisher's life. Before long he was homeless, bouncing from one drug house to another, and eventually through the revolving doors of prison.
In July 2001, California's Proposition 36 was initiated, just as Fisher found himself facing his fourth felony conviction for drug possession. Instead of prison, he was offered the opportunity to participate in the new program.
Proposition 36 mandated that people convicted of nonviolent drug possession charges be put into treatment programs rather than prison, a position vocally supported by the Pomona-based Progressive Christians United, as well as numerous local churches.
The proposition's $120 million annual funding faces renewal in July 2006, and legislation is currently winding through the state legislature to amend the law.
Progressive Christians United is especially opposed to SB 803, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Denise Ducheny of San Diego that will allow judges to impose jail sanctions for re-offenders. It already passed through the Senate and is being reviewed in the Assembly.
"It's the same position that those opposed to Prop. 36 used when this was on the ballot,' said Bill Miller, board member of the Pomona church group and a retired pastor of First Methodist Church in Whittier.
"We support treating drug abuse as a medical and public health issue, not a criminal issue. It's a disease that people need treatment for, not punishment. From a moral perspective, we need to help these people.'
Ducheny said she agrees with the basic premise of Proposition 36, but she wrote SB 803 to address what she saw as a lack of accountability and to decrease the recidivism rates of Proposition 36.
"It gives judges a way to wake people up and make them see that they face real consequences if they re-offend,' Ducheny said. "The people voted for this so they obviously want it. We hope this bill will strengthen the program.'
But Proposition 36 co-author Dave Fratello said Ducheny's proposed changes pose a constitutional challenge.
"Any changes to an initiative must be consistent with the meaning of it. Adding jail sanctions is the very thing the proposition was created to change,' Fratello said.
For Fisher, the comprehensive, holistic nature of Proposition 36 was the only thing that could break the vicious cycle in which he found himself not jail.
"Most traditional drug treatment programs are part time,' Fisher said. "When you're there back in the scene, around the same people, you're just not going to get up and go to a once- a-week class. And when I was in jail, I was just making better connections for nefarious activities.'
Today, UCLA will release it's 2005 annual study of the impact of Proposition 36. In previous studies, results showed approximately one-third of the participants successfully graduated from the program, which is about the same as the drug court programs.
According to Progressive Christians United, the main difference is that many more people enter the Proposition 36 program and those who do are more experienced drug users than drug court participants.
James Wilson, program director at Norwalk's CIDER House (Crisis Intervention Detox Education Recovery), said a key to understanding drug treatment is that drug offenders who manage to quit their habits often go through several attempts before they are successful.
"If incarceration worked, we wouldn't have such high recidivism rates as we do with our traditional punitive system,' Wilson said. "There's a different concept of what success is in that system. Every time an addict has contact with a treatment program, they're helped and are likely to return at some point.'
Proponents of Proposition 36 point to the drastic difference in cost between incarceration and treatment. Prison costs approximately $25,000 a year per inmate, while treatment costs $5,000, said Miller.
After years of alcohol and drug abuse, Ron Teffteller, 42, chose treatment because he was tired of going to prison. He was offered the Proposition 36 program through San Pedro's Beacon House treatment center.
"It really floored me,' Teffteller said. "But it planted a seed. I saw people getting stuff off their chests.
"For the first time I started letting out all the hatred, guilt and shame I had been holding in all my life. My step-dad used to beat my mom and I was too young to do anything about it. I realized I was going to treat people different as long as I held all of that in.'
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