NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Some Prefer Jail to Drug Treatment

October 2, 2001

California's Proposition 36, a voter-backed initiative that mandates treatment instead of prison for first- and second-time offenders who use or possess drugs, took effect July 1. But far fewer drug offenders than anticipated have pleaded guilty under the new law.

And among those who have sought treatment, there have been far more severe addicts than expected, with the added complications of mental illness, homelessness and unemployment.

  • In Los Angeles County, which accounts for one-fourth of all California drug arrests, officials had projected an average of 80 people a day would accept sentencing to treatment under Proposition 36.
  • But only about 45 defendants a day have done so, said David Davies, chief of adult field services for the Los Angeles Probation Department.
  • Similarly in Sacramento County, planners projected that seven out of ten offenders under Proposition 36 would need minimal treatment because they were casual drug users -- instead, county officials say, more than half have turned out to be hard-core addicts needing maximum treatment.

Experts say many defendants eligible for sentencing under the new law are choosing to plead guilty under the old law, where the sentence may be simple probation or a few weeks in jail. If they plead guilty under Proposition 36, treatment could last for months, they would be on probation for three years, and if they violate probation by skipping treatment or failing a drug test twice, they could be sent to prison for years.

Moreover, about 30 percent of offenders who pleaded guilty under Proposition 36 have since had arrest warrants issued because they did not show up at treatment centers or return for a court review, says California Judge Stephen Marcus.

Source: Fox Butterfield, "New Drug-Offender Program Draws Unexpected Clients," New York Times, September 29, 2001.


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