Taking the initiative

Proposition 36 Court is a whole different ball game

In Butte County, there’s Drug Court and then there’s “Prop. 36 Court.” Although both programs are there to get people off drugs, they are not the same thing. While participants in Drug Court are addicted felons trying to stay out of prison, Prop. 36 participants are first- and second-time, nonviolent drug offenders, most of whom were arrested for simple possession.

Proposition 36 was a reform initiative backed by the Drug Policy Alliance that mandated treatment instead of jail time for many drug offenders. Passed by voters in 2000, the measure promised to save taxpayers billions in incarceration costs over the years and sounded to many voters like it would force counties to set up drug courts. Butte County based its Prop. 36 courts on the existing Drug Court program.

But some Drug Court professionals and treatment providers say the initiative is flawed. For one thing, they say, it doesn’t provide enough leeway for judges to sanction court participants who refuse to follow the program. While participants in Drug Court are often sent directly to jail if they fail a drug test, judges in Prop. 36 Court are barred from taking such action until defendants prove beyond a doubt that they are not interested in giving up their vice. Drug Court participants live in constant fear that if they mess up they will end up in prison. Proposition 36 participants have less to fear, because most of them are facing lighter charges.

Judge Stevens said the Prop. 36 courts are also in danger of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of defendants they are taking on, which doesn’t allow them to monitor the defendants as closely as is needed.

Studies testing the effectiveness of Prop. 36 are underway but likely won’t be out for at least another year.