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April 19, 2005 - San Jose Mercury News (CA)

Senate Bill Would Dismantle Drug Treatment Effort That Works

By Dave Fratello, co-author of Proposition 36, and political director of the Campaign for New Drug Policies, based in Santa Monica

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When voters approved Proposition 36 four years ago, they meant to reverse a failed drug policy that emphasized punishment over treatment. Punishing addiction had failed to make a dent in the problem, and ruined tens of thousands of lives.

But now died-in-the-wool drug warriors, led by prosecutors and narcotics officers, are trying to undo Proposition 36 in the Legislature. It's the latest act in an unseemly history of second-guessing voters and overturning popular initiatives.

Proposition 36 requires drug treatment, not jail or prison, for the first two non-violent drug possession offenses. Its impact is already dramatic:

  • In 2000, California held 20,116 prison inmates whose most serious offense was drug possession. Today, 7,337 fewer people are imprisoned for possession.
  • A women's prison was closed, and plans for a new men's prison were scrapped, saving taxpayers $500 million.
  • Lives are being saved. More than 30,000 people enter Proposition 36 drug treatment annually. More than 10,000 successfully completed treatment the first year. The law is on pace to help 50,000 people complete treatment in its first five years.

These successes are even more impressive in light of data showing that Proposition 36 treatment clients are older, and more severely addicted, than expected. Many are parolees, a group that has been highly resistant to treatment previously.

Despite this progress, opponents of Proposition 36 never gave up the fight they lost before voters. They've inspired Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-Chula Vista, to introduce SB 803, to radically change Proposition 36. It limits the number of people eligible for treatment and makes treatment in jail, not community-based programs, the norm. Prosecutors and judges could jail clients at the first hint of trouble during treatment.

Critics say we must rewrite Proposition 36 because too few people are complying with their Proposition 36 treatment. They're wrong.

Nearly three in four people who enter Proposition 36 treatment (72.2 percent) spend enough time there to receive what researchers call a "standard dose." Even for those who don't finish, treatment pays both immediate and long-term dividends. During treatment, people are less likely to use drugs or commit crimes. Afterward, they are further along in a journey toward recovery.

Proposition 36 compares well with other systems linking treatment and criminal justice. A state-sponsored evaluation found that 34.4 percent of the people who began Proposition 36 treatment completed it. The same study found that 36 percent of all other criminal-justice referrals completed their treatment. Not much difference.

The state's "drug court" system is often held up as a model -- Santa Clara County's program in particular. In several years before Proposition 36, drug courts had a 41.8 percent completion rate statewide -- albeit with a much smaller, handpicked group of drug offenders. Data show that Proposition 36 clients are more severely addicted than those in drug court before. Again, there is no striking difference in success rates.

Sen. Ducheny's bill pushes the mistaken idea that jail can be treatment, not punishment. But no studies indicate that putting Proposition 36 treatment clients in jail would improve success rates. Out of dozens of studies of drug courts in California and elsewhere, not one shows that jail time keeps clients in treatment. One study suggests the opposite -- people in two separate drug courts who got jail time as a "sanction" were more likely to fail treatment.

What's worse, the changes in SB 803 destroy the essence of Proposition 36 as a health care-based intervention. If all counties used about the same amount of jail time as Santa Clara County's drug court does, they could spend $90 million per year to jail Proposition 36 treatment clients. Many counties would have to release more serious offenders from jail to make room. And money would come out of treatment, swinging the pendulum back to an emphasis on punishment.

What Proposition 36 needs is more money targeted for treatment. The program works. Now let's expand it so we can save more lives and more money. The last thing we need is state legislators thwarting the will of the people by subverting another popular initiative. Given that Proposition 36 won with 61 percent of the vote, and has delivered on its promise, any legislator who gets in the way of this progress is likely to get run over.

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