California: Drug War Enters New Phase With "Treatment Not Jail" to Begin July 1 6/29/01

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That grinding noise coming from the West Coast is the sound of bureaucratic gears shifting as the nation's most populous state frantically prepares to embark on a bold new experiment in drug rehabilitation on a massive scale. But part of the racket is coming as well from the wailing and gnashing of teeth of state and local officials convinced that, with the end of their ability to send thousands of drug offenders to prison each year, the end times are upon them -- and that their programs or agencies are not adequately funded.

Beginning next week, California's Proposition 36, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act goes into effect. Passed by a 61% majority of voters last November, the measure will divert an estimated 36,000 drug offenders from prison into court-ordered drug treatment each year. At present, California leads the nation in incarcerating drug offenders, locking them up at a rate twice the national average, and this phase shift in the state's approach to arrested drug users is bound to create some bumps during the transition.

Working out of a Sacramento office, Whitney Taylor is the Prop. 36 implementation director for The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, which along with the Campaign for New Drug Policies has been one of the main movers in passing and now implementing the "treatment not jail" initiative. (Lindesmith's Prop. 36 web site is http://www.prop36.org and the Campaign can be found at http://www.drugreform.org online.) She told DRCNet that Lindesmith and CDNP are monitoring counties' compliance with the new regime.

"We're looking first of all for a county's commitment to a public health approach," said Taylor. "Are they really following the intent of the voters? Are programs to be run by public health officials rather than law enforcement?"

The role of district attorneys will be important as well, Taylor said. "The DAs are the gatekeepers. Do the DAs produce charging guidelines for Prop. 36 and make them available? We'll be watching to see," she vowed. "Also, the DAs control eligibility for Prop. 36 by their control over charging decisions. If someone is charged with another crime, if the DA decides to add on a resisting arrest charge, for instance, this person will not be eligible."

In fact, Taylor and Lindesmith have already been watching. Earlier this week, the group issued "report cards" measuring the progress toward implementation in the state's 11 most populous counties, which contain 75% of the California population. San Francisco unsurprisingly won the highest grade, an "A," followed by San Mateo (A-), Alameda (B), Orange (B), Los Angeles (B-), Fresno (C), Riverside (C), Santa Clara (D+), San Diego (D+) and Sacramento (D). San Bernardino was the only county to receive a failing grade.

The report card was based on written implementation plans submitted by each county to the State Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs and measured their progress in four crucial areas: allocation of money for treatment, range of treatment options, "docs or cops" (the degree of inclusion of public health professionals in planning and implementing Prop. 36 in each county), and the level of balanced community involvement in the planning process. Graders awarded extra credit to San Francisco, Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside Counties for issuing DA's criminal charging guidelines, which publicly define Prop. 36 eligibility. (The "report card" is available at http://www.prop36.org/report.tpl on the Prop. 36 web site.)

"Counties will not get away with using taxpayer money to fund more of the same failed policies," said Taylor. "We hope these criteria will help guide them in the right direction."

Los Angeles County is among those already screaming about lack of funds. The county stands to receive $30 million in state funds for Prop. 36 this year, but that isn't enough, say county officials. "The county's going to go into debt. We just don't know how much," Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan, who supervises the county's drug courts, told the Associated Press earlier this week. Elizabeth Stanley-Salazar, California director for Phoenix Houses, one of the nation's largest treatment providers, concurred. "At this moment we clearly have many more clients than we have funding for," said Stanley-Salazar, who sits on the state and Los Angeles County's Prop. 36 implementation task forces. "We're building the transcontinental railroad here, six inches at a time."

Initiative supporters say such talk is premature, if not alarmist. "There's a lot of 'Chicken Little' going on in LA," said Taylor. "When you start changing the system, there are always hiccups. Prop. 36 allocated $120 million for treatment per year for the next five years, and it's too early to be running around saying there isn't enough money."

Some of the concern is based on false assumptions, Taylor told DRCNet. "A lot of this talk assumes that everyone is going to need residential treatment, which is the most expensive," she said, "but recreational users who get arrested don't need that. They should be given an education program, like drunk driving classes, not an inappropriate level of treatment they don't need."

And, Taylor pointed out, Prop. 36 is projected to save the state $1.5 billion in prison costs over the next five years. "If there is a need for more treatment money, I'm sure legislators will step up to the plate."

Another aspect of Prop. 36 causing much moaning and wailing among law enforcement and some treatment professionals is its explicit lack of funding for drug testing. Taylor is unapologetic; it was no oversight, she said. "Drug testing should only be used as a therapeutic tool," she told DRCNet (such as by treatment specialists to measure progress). "That's why Prop. 36 was written with no drug testing money in it. We didn't want to put this money in a coffer so probation officers could ask everybody to pee in a cup." Drug testing is not that expensive if used for therapeutic, not law enforcement, purposes, she said. "The money is not that much, but it can be a huge expense if they want to test everyone twice a week," said Taylor. "They've always had money for drug testing, and they will continue to find money for it."

Both initiative supporters and foes are supporting a bill introduced by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), which would provide $18 million for drug testing. "We support that if it is used as a therapeutic tool. We want to keep people in treatment, not kick them out for relapsing," said Taylor.

Whether Taylor's optimistic vision or opponents' dire predictions of doom are closer to the mark remains to be seen. The rest of the nation will be watching.

-- END --
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