Where’s the funding?

Butte County public health officials who happened to read the New York Times’ op-ed pages on April 10 no doubt experienced a sense of irony—and, perhaps, a bit of frustration.

In an editorial titled “A Victory for California,” the Times gave a rare pat on the back to the state for its determination to offer nonviolent drug offenders community-based treatment, rather than punish them with imprisonment. It was a well-deserved tribute, but as local treatment providers know, funding for treatment services is on the decline in the county.

In 2000, California voters passed Proposition 36, mandating that first- and second-time nonviolent drug offenders be offered treatment instead of jail time. Citing recent data from a study by researchers at UCLA, the Times noted that treatment is more effective in handling nonviolent offenders and also saves the state money—$2.50 for every $1 invested. Overall, California taxpayers have saved a whopping $1.4 billion.

The Times editorial fails to note, however, that later this year, Prop. 36 is due to expire, funding and all. Pending new legislation that would continue funding, Gov. Schwarzenegger has provided a one-year allocation to keep the program going, but Butte County will receive about $16,000 less than it did last year. Worse, a two-year federal grant that had supplemented the local program expired recently, costing the county another $200,000 annually.

These declines come as the county continues to struggle with near epidemic levels of methamphetamine abuse. Most of the 240 people now enrolled in Prop. 36 treatment programs are there because of meth. Public health officials worry that many enrollees in Prop. 36 treatment programs who need residential treatment will be ordered instead into less expensive—and less effective—outpatient counseling.

The Legislature needs to resolve this problem now. As the UCLA report notes, Prop. 36 drug treatment programs need more funding, not less. They are working well and saving money, and lawmakers should support them.