California Voters Approve Measure to Give Nonviolent Offenders Drug Treatment Instead of Prison Time
California's approval Tuesday of Proposition 36, which will sentence first- and second-time nonviolent drug offenders to treatment instead of prison, may "radically alter" the state's prison system, the New York Times reports. Under the measure, the state will move away from treating drug addiction as a crime and toward treating it as a health problem. The measure requires people convicted of possession, use or transportation of controlled substances to receive probation and drug treatment. Individuals caught selling or manufacturing drugs and those arrested on nondrug-related charges, such as theft or gun possession, are excluded from the treatment mandate. Drug offenders who fail treatment programs twice could be sentenced to jail or prison if they are found to be "unamenable to treatment," and those who fail three times are required to serve prison time. Proponents of Proposition 36 have lauded the measure's differentiation between drug offenders and "real criminals." "This shows that we can draw distinctions between ... real crime and violent crime and drug users. It also punctures the conventional wisdom among politicians that what voters want is an across-the-board zero-tolerance policy," Dave Fratello, a spokesperson for the Yes on 36 campaign, said. Opponents of Proposition 36, including "virtually all" of California's law enforcement officials, judges and some health care groups, say the measure would "decimate the state's drug courts." Last month, more than 100 judges signed a petition criticizing Proposition 36 because it fails to pay for drug tests and outlaws the short jail terms the courts often use to punish people caught using drugs during treatment. Judge Stephen Manley, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge and president of the California Association of Drug Court Professionals, said, "Proposition 36 will spend $120 million on treatment that will not work. What does work is when you hold drug addicts accountable." Despite its opposition to the measure, CADCP said it "would try to make the initiative work" by requesting money from the Legislature for drug testing and by urging strict licensing and regulation of drug treatment providers. The California District Attorneys Association, however, has "not decided" yet whether it will "mount a legal challenge" to Proposition 36. The measure is slated to go into effect in July 2001. Earlier this year, New York became the first state to require courts to offer nonviolent criminals who are drug addicts a choice between jail and treatment (American Health Line, 6/26). The state's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimated that Proposition 36 could reduce the state prison population by 36,000 people a year, saving California about $250 million annually in incarceration costs and local governments $40 million a year in operations costs. While the measure earmarks $120 million a year -- around $4,000 per patient -- for drug treatment costs, the state spends about $20,000 per year to keep a person in prison, the Times reports. In addition, California would enjoy a one-time savings of $550 million in reduced costs for prison construction, the Legislative Analyst's Office reported. Currently, nearly one in three prisoners in California is serving a sentence for a drug-related crime, more than any other state, the Times reports (Nieves, New York Times, 11/10).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.