‘Penny wise, pound foolish’

Drug Court officials decry possible loss of Prop. 36 funding

When voters passed Proposition 36, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, in 2000, many law-enforcement officials thought it wouldn’t work. By mandating treatment instead of incarceration for first- and second-time nonviolent drug offenders, it lacked a “hammer”—the threat of jail time—that would make sure people stuck with their treatment regimens.

But most now agree the program has been a success, and nowhere more so than in Butte County. Here it’s kept more than 2,000 people out of jail, turned around many lives, and saved the county and state millions of dollars in incarceration costs.

If Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gets his way on the state budget, however, that success is about to end.

California’s whopping $26 billion deficit has the state issuing IOUs for some of its debts and proposing massive cuts to services for some of its neediest residents. Among them: elimination of all funding for Prop. 36 treatment programs. Butte County expects to lose $400,000.

The county’s Prop. 36 Comprehensive Treatment Court is based on the nation’s first successful Drug Court model, pioneered in Florida in 1989, providing long-term treatment and close supervision by a team of criminal-justice and mental-health professionals.

It works side-by-side with Butte County’s own Drug Court, which under the leadership of the late Superior Court Judge Darrell Stevens became a model for similar courts across the country.

Since July 2001, when it began, Butte County’s Prop. 36 program has had 2,487 participants, District Attorney Mike Ramsey said. The program boasts between a 45 percent and 50 percent success ratio of graduates, compared to the state average of 25 percent.

“We’re pretty proud of being the best in the state,” offered Ramsey. “And doing that with Butte County resources is remarkable.

“We’ve obviously saved a number of people from going to prison, which just drives us nuts here,” Ramsey added, indicating a measure of the frustration felt locally about the slashing of Prop. 36 funding. “The governor wants to cut the prison population. Here is a prison-population cutter that’s been tested as effective, but that’s the first to go.”

Butte County Assistant District Attorney Helen Harberts—a nationally recognized expert on the therapeutic-drug-court model—worked in Prop. 36 Court since its inception in 2001 until several months ago, when Deputy District Attorney Dan Nelson took over.

Harberts pointed out that elimination of Prop. 36 funding, while the law will remain, will result in the loss of the crucial treatment infrastructure—the probation officers and residential treatment—the program relies upon.

“Structurally, there will not be a Prop. 36,” offered Harberts. “The law remains, and the money went away—that’s the problem. The way we’ve done Prop. 36 for the last nine years will now be done.”

“The work that is done [in Butte County] by the treatment programs and the probation officers is tremendous,” said Harberts. “We expected success, and people always met our expectations. Our retention rate is 60 percent, which is extraordinary. …The No. 1 indicator of success is how long you’ve been in treatment.”

Getting rid of Prop. 36 funding, Nelson agreed, “is a big mistake. It’s the most well-spent money in the budget.

“They should be spending more, not less,” he continued. “People are doing well on this program. They’re turning out to be good fathers, good employees. The program is a success, especially in Butte County.”

“Everyone who works with this program knows it works,” said Butte County Public Defender Steven Trenholme, speaking following the weekly Wednesday Prop. 36 Court.

“We had two people graduate yesterday, and over 20 on the ‘all-star’ list,” he added enthusiastically. All-stars are those with a perfect record in a one-month period for attending all meetings and having no “dirty” drug tests.

“People are testing clean, making their appointments,” said Trenholme. “We’re seeing them shine, seeing them getting healthy.

“It’s penny wise and pound foolish for the state not to fund this program,” he added. “If we [don’t have funding], more of my clients will be in jail or prison, taxpayer costs will go up, and families will be broken apart. Misery will increase for my clients, their families and for the community at large.”

One “Prop-36’er,” as he referred to himself—an all-star in residential treatment at The Well Ministry of Rescue on the Esplanade since January—shared Trenholme’s views, but preferred not to have his name mentioned.

“It’s been good,” said the 58-year-old, who has a long history of intravenous methamphetamine abuse, “because it’s let me stay clean and sober long enough to have a perspective on it to know that I want to stay this way.”

He hopes to graduate from the Prop. 36 program by the end of the year.

Asked what he thought might happen if funding were eliminated, he answered, “I have no idea. That’s what everybody’s wondering. Are they going to start graduating people out of the program and not take new people? … Our ‘pee guy’ [who takes urine samples for drug testing] already got a layoff notice. I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Harberts. “The downside to some of this is that people will die. These are life-or-death cases.

“I only hope that someone wakes up,” she added. “They simply need to take 10 percent of the Department of Corrections budget and put it into [Prop. 36] Drug Court. They need to quit fooling around and get it done.”