To a Speedy Recovery

Will threats of prison sentences keep addicts off drugs?

| September 14, 2006

In 2000, Californians passed an experimental ballot initiative known as Proposition 36 (pdf) in an attempt to deal with prisons overcrowded by nonviolent drug offenders. Now, five years after it went into effect, drug-related incarcerations are down and hundreds of thousands of drug offenders have been admitted to treatment programs . Writing for East Bay Express, Kara Platoni reports that while backers of 'Prop. 36' are lauding its successes, the California government is more critical of its shortcomings (more than two-thirds of participants never complete treatment) and is pushing revisions that call for more jail-time.

Drawn up by the Berkeley office of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), Prop. 36 set out to remove addicts from 'the legal system's revolving door.' The initiative tries to address addicts' propensity for relapses, and gives participants three chances at treatment before sending them to jail. Because the tab for treatment courses is a tenth of the cost of imprisonment, the program saves the government money while sparing participants the social stigma of doing time. 'Prison can exacerbate addiction or the mental health problems that may accompany it,' says DPA's director of legal affairs, Daniel Abrahamson. 'There's no such thing as a drug-free jail in California.' Once outside prison, the newly released encounter problems finding employment, housing, and getting into college programs, which may ultimately turn them back to a life of drugs.

While Prop. 36 may be keeping addicts out of prison, naysayers say it's not keeping them off drugs. The critics' common refrain is that the initiative has a 'street reputation as a 'get out jail free' card,' and is 'all carrot and no stick,' Platoni writes. Santa Clara County judge Stephen Manley is convinced that the threat of imprisonment is the 'realistic way to deal with addicts who live in the moment.' Manley co-chaired a committee to draw up legislative revisions to Prop. 36, including a two-day jail term for the first violation of the program and five days for the second. The new legislation, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in July, was only in effect one day before the DPA won a temporary restraining order blocking it. The legislation is set for court review Sept. 14. The DPA is especially critical of revised approach, saying it '[penalizes] relapses, which are a normal part of the recovery process,' and continues to view addiction as criminal, rather than a medical problem. -- Rachel Anderson

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