Sentencing: Arizona Legislative Initiative Would Roll Back Reforms When It Comes to Methamphetamine Offenders

A decade ago, voters in Arizona approved a groundbreaking initiative, Proposition 200, "The Drug Medicalization, Prevention, and Control Act of 1996", which barred judges from sending first- or second-time drug possession offenders to prison. Instead, drug possessors are placed on probation and sometimes sent to drug court. But now, the Arizona legislature, concerned with the demon drug du jour, wants to treat those convicted of methamphetamine possession differently -- to be sent to jail or prison instead of getting probation and drug court.

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Arizona State Prison Complex - Safford
On the November ballot is Proposition 301, an initiative sponsored not by the voters but by the state legislature. If Arizona legislators wanted to go on the record as partially undoing Prop. 200, they could have voted to amend it. Instead, they crafted this proposition and dropped it in the laps of the voters.

"Meth is highly addictive and destructive," wrote Maricopa County (Phoenix) Attorney Andrew Thomas in a ballot argument for the measure. "There is a strong connection between meth abuse and identity theft. Phoenix has the second highest rate of methamphetamine abuse of all the nation's cities, as evidenced by drug tests done on arrestees... This proposition will change the law so that people arrested for possession of meth can be sentenced to jail or prison after their first conviction for drug possession. Currently, meth users can be incarcerated only after their second or third conviction for drug possession, or if they refuse to participate in treatment. Time in jail is often the only thing that offers meth addicts a secure, drug-free environment and an opportunity to reflect on their situation."

Proposition 301 singles out meth offenders for special treatment, and it does so on the basis of inaccurate ballot language -- language that survived a court challenge not on the merits, but because the challenge came too late. In the Arizona Legislative Council's analysis of the initiative, which is part of the ballot, the council informs voters that: "This change in the law will allow judges to use a jail term as a condition of probation to force methamphetamine users to comply with court mandated drug treatment and rehabilitation."

That language is misleading at best. While under current law, judges may not sentence people to jail or prison for first- or second-time drug possession offenses, they can put them on probation and send them to jail for violating it, as in, for instance, not complying with court-ordered drug treatment programs.

"Their spin is that this thing is simply a tool to force people to stay in treatment," said Caroline Isaacs of Meth Free Arizona -- "No" on 303. "That is completely contradictory to the bill's actual language," she told the Tucson Weekly last week. "Everybody is rightfully concerned about the extent of meth use in our community. But Proposition 301 would take us in exactly the wrong direction, in terms of dealing with our meth problem. To say the solution is to not provide treatment to people is absolutely backwards."

It is not just activists like Isaacs who oppose the measure. Pima County Superior Court Judge Barbara Sattler, who presides over the county's drug court program, told the Weekly "there is a lot of misconception concerning Proposition 301... It is true that first- and second-time offenders who possess small amounts of drugs (be it meth, cocaine, heroin, etc.) cannot be initially sent to prison or jail. However, if they violate treatment orders or get arrested for other felonies or drug offenses, they can be sent to jail or prison. Second-time offenders can get jail time up front as a condition of probation (although again they can not go to prison up front). Violating a treatment order means failing to drug test, testing positive for drugs or failing to attend treatment, whether that is going to counseling or failing to live in a halfway house catering to drug offenders," Judge Sattler wrote. "You can also go to jail or prison if you reject probation or refuse drug treatment."

A win for Proposition 301 would be a disaster, wrote Judge Sattler. "Incarcerating people keeps them off the streets, but when they come out, if they have not had treatment, they will begin using again. If this prop is passed, it will cost the taxpayers lots of money and clog prison with nonviolent addicts. While there is some drug treatment, in jail or prison, it is minimal and available only to a small percentage of prisoners.

"I think the bill is very short-sighted in targeting meth only," she continued. "While meth is certainly a horrible, highly addictive drug, addicts can be treated. Drug courts and other programs have had success. In the past, other drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine were the 'meth' of their time. The solution is not to target one drug. In a few years, there will be a new drug that takes the place of meth."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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