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April 2, 2007

Another (sorry?) California sentencing story

Thanks to this post at Crime & Consequences, I came across this interesting Los Angeles Times piece discussing a UCLA study of Proposition 36, California's initiative that called for the state to treat drug users rather than jail them.  Here is a snippet from the article:

From the start, Proposition 36 faced overwhelming challenges.  The initiative gave most nonviolent offenders convicted of drug possession the option to enter treatment rather than jail or prison.  Since it started in July 2001, about 50,000 people have entered the program each year. Half had never received treatment.

But the severity of their addictions took the measure's authors by surprise.  More than half of the defendants reported using drugs for longer than a decade, according to evaluations by UCLA researchers. Some had spent lifetimes in and out of prison....

By diverting offenders ... into rehab, Proposition 36 has reduced the number of prisoners at any time serving sentences for drug possession by more than 4,000, from nearly 19,000 when it began in 2001.  Yet, while fewer offenders are sentenced to long prison and jail terms, law enforcement officials complain that they are busier than ever arresting drug users. Many have outstanding warrants for violating Proposition 36.

Courts have little choice but to release them unless they have exhausted their three chances. A Times analysis of Los Angeles County jail data found that drug possession bookings soared 150% between 2000, the year before Proposition 36 began, and 2005.

Drug counselors, judges and county officials say the program desperately needs more money. The ballot measure set aside $120 million a year for the first five years, yet defendants often wait weeks, sometimes months, before a residential treatment bed is available.  Less costly outpatient treatment is more readily available but has proven largely ineffective with long-term abusers.

The LA Times piece suggests to me that Prop. 36 is yet another sentencing story of good intentions done in by pragmatic realities and a general unwillingness to fund a program as the going gets rough.  I would hope that thoughtful evidence-based tweaking of the drug-treatment program could make it more effective, but I am not sure I would count on California's dysfunctional criminal justice system working effectively toward thoughtful evidence-based tweaks.

April 2, 2007 at 04:41 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Apr 2, 2007 6:20:01 PM


It seems obvious to many of us that Prop. 36 could be "saved" with more money for quality, evidence-based treatment, as well as better coordination between the criminal justice system and the drug treatment system. Unfortunately, many of the criminal justice actors who were opposed to Prop. 36 during the campaign are the same ones who are in charge of the system today. Their solution to illicit drug use and addiction has always been putting people in cages, and that's their "solution" to Prop. 36. The fact is, Prop. 36 has the same success rates as drug courts, while being less resource intensive and saving jail and prison space. I'm not sure how sending more Prop. 36 clients to jail or prison is going to help California's severe jail and prison overcrowding problems, but then again, many of Prop. 36's detractors aren't particularly interested in having fewer people behind bars.

Posted by: Scott | Apr 2, 2007 5:12:45 PM


"[M]any of Prop. 36's detractors aren't particularly interested in having fewer people behind bars." Who are these people? Prosecutors? Judges? As a California prosecutor I voted against Prop 36 because without the stick, the carrot of treatment will not work. Plus, contrary to popular opinion, there are less drugs available in jail than on the street. Do we send the uncontrollable alcoholic to the corner liquor store for milk?

I voted against Prop 36 because the $120 million it provided specfically refused to allow one penny for drug testing to determine compliance. This was ridiculous policy. I voted against Prop 36 because I thougth it would simply recycle the addicts faster through the system, generating more cost. Finally, I thought Prop 36 was the first of several steps to legalization.

Do I want more people in jail? No. Do I want people to clean up their lives, stop stealing and take care of their children. Yes. Treatment can work, Prop 36 without some modifications, does not. You seem to want more money and no accountability for individual failure. What is so wrong with a small amount of jail time to give the addict in treatment time to sober up and think about their choices? We are not talking about years here.

Posted by: David | Apr 3, 2007 10:04:28 AM

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