Drug-treatment law gets altered

For the past five years in California, low-level nonviolent drug offenders have done their time in treatment centers instead of jail. In fact, by law they couldn’t be incarcerated until they were first given the option of treatment.

Proposition 36, a.k.a. the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000, came into effect in July 2001. Money for state-licensed treatment facilities was allocated for five years.

The Butte County Prop. 36 Court celebrated five years of success last Thursday (June 29). Alumni showed up, and they celebrated seven graduations that day. But their justified pride in their program was stifled a bit by turmoil in Sacramento. It was unclear then whether the program would be able to continue because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was threatening to halt funding if reforms weren’t made.

As it turned out, a funding bill did pass—but with several changes in Prop. 36.

State Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego) introduced those changes to Prop. 36 in Senate Bill 1137 as a budget trailer bill. It needed a two-thirds vote in the Legislature and passed by an overwhelming majority. Schwarzenegger signed the bill into law last Friday along with the state budget.

The governor approved $120 million for drug-treatment facilities to be distributed throughout the state. Butte County would receive about $900,000, said Lisa Cox, assistant director of the Adult Services Administration of Butte County’s Department of Behavioral Health. There is another $25 million earmarked for the program, and each county can apply for part of this additional funding, up to 30 percent of its initial disbursement. In Butte’s case, it could apply for an extra $270,000, Cox said.

“It offers performance-based support,” she said. “So that means all of the hard work we’ve done in the past five years is going to pay off.”

The biggest and most controversial change called for in SB 1137is “flash incarceration” for participants who fail to follow through with their programs. If they miss a treatment session or don’t show up for a probation meeting, they could get sent to jail, usually for 24 to 48 hours.

Schwarzenegger was in favor of this change, as were many of the legislators. Others, however, aren’t so sure.

“The worst [part of SB 1137] is a change that would allow incarceration for people who are active in rehabilitation but have a relapse,” said Margaret Dooley, the Drug Policy Alliance’s Prop. 36 outreach coordinator. “[Prop. 36] is the treatment-instead-of-incarceration law. We view this as a legislative attempt to undermine a mandate from voters.”

The DPA has threatened to sue on the grounds that SB 1137 is unconstitutional because it goes against the intents and purposes of Prop. 36 as approved by voters. If a court were to agree, what is now SB 1137—basically Sen. Ducheny’s version of Prop. 36—would be added to the November ballot.

Judge Robert Glusman, who has presided over Butte County’s Prop. 36 Court since January 2005, said he has “mixed feelings” about flash incarcerations, also called remands.

“I have seen it work many times that showing someone the jail has had a positive effect on their recovery,” he said. “But it depends on the person. For longtime users who are very familiar with the system, a remand doesn’t have much effect. For others who haven’t ever been in jail, it has a positive effect on them.”

Cox said she thinks the flash incarcerations could be good for the program.

“It will give judges the opportunity to offer [offenders] more chances,” Cox said. Under Prop. 36, each participant was given three chances—three missed appointments or relapses—before probation was revoked. “The DPA is saying this bill will send people to jail or prison. But it’s actually more lenient [than Prop. 36]. Would you rather go to jail for one day or go to prison for 18 months? Give me a break.”

Prop. 36 has been considered extremely successful throughout the state. A recent study by UCLA reported that taxpayers save about $2.50 for every dollar invested in the program. In the law’s five years, it has saved about $1.4 billion.

Placing an offender in a treatment program costs about $3,000 per year, Glusman said, versus $34,000 for a year in prison. In Butte County, more than 450 people have graduated from the program. Glusman said about 50 percent of the people who come through the courtroom successfully finish their rehab programs. The statewide average is 34 percent.

“Drug Court and Prop. 36 Court clearly prove that treatment works,” Glusman said. Drug Court is for more serious offenders, but sentences often require substance-abuse treatment. “Even when people don’t graduate, they are still better off and are less likely to be rearrested or relapsing. The more treatment, the better success.”