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July 12, 2005 - San Jose Mercury News (CA)

Advocates Urge Preservation Of Drug Treatment Not Incarceration

By Beth Fouhy, Associated Press

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

SAN FRANCISCO - A state program that directs nonviolent drug offenders into treatment rather than jail has been effective and must be allowed to continue without new legislative restrictions, a group of drug treatment advocates said.

"It's rare in public life to enact something that makes a great deal of common sense and moral sense. That's what this program does," said the Rev. Peter Laarman of the Los Angeles-based Progressive Christians Uniting and a supporter of the program. The teleconference Monday was organized by the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group that drafted the measure.

Proposition 36 - the so-called Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act passed by voters in 2000 - allocates $120 million per year for first- and second-time offenders to evade incarceration and enroll in drug treatment programs instead.

The law has won praise among many treatment advocates, who say it has helped thousands of drug users kick their addiction and saved taxpayers roughly $250 million in incarceration costs annually. But law enforcement officials complain the program lacks accountability and that offenders are not sufficiently punished for lapses.

A 2004 UCLA study tracking the effectiveness of Proposition 36 found that about 34 percent of offenders who were sentenced under the law and had showed up for treatment, had successfully completed their treatment. Supporters of the law called the figures encouraging, noting the difficulty of treating addiction.

But opponents pointed out that the UCLA study also found that 31 percent of offenders treated under the measure were re-arrested, compared with an 18 percent rate for other programs.

"Proposition 36 has been a treatment failure," said John Lovell of the California Narcotics Officers Association.

With funding for Proposition 36 set to expire in 2006, several lawmakers have authored legislation to renew the funding while applying certain restrictions. A bill that would allow a short-term jail option for certain offenders sponsored by state Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, overwhelmingly passed the Senate last month and is now making its way through the Assembly.

In an interview, Ducheny said the bill was designed to improve offenders' rate of compliance, while at the same time boosting the number of people eligible for the program and extending the length of time a person could be eligible for treatment.

"We're not saying in any way that folks should be incarcerated for the drug conviction," Ducheny said. "What we're saying is there needs to be a way to put you back in the program if you fall out."

In a conference call with reporters to commemorate the four-year anniversary of the passage of Proposition 36, several supporters warned Ducheny's bill would allow courts, not doctors, to make key medical decisions for drug offenders.

"Chemical dependency is a medical and public health problem that demands an appropriate solution," said Lisa Folberg of the California Medical Association. "Under this bill, judges would be making decisions about appropriate addiction treatment. We think they need to be made by people who understand treatment."

Paul Colbert, a Sacramento resident who said he was addicted to methamphetamine for 22 years before going through treatment under Proposition. 36, said the program had succeeded for him while several stints behind bars had not.

"I see people I used to do drugs with and they say they can't believe I got clean," Colbert said, adding that he'd been drug free for 3 1/2 years.

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