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Critics Fear Reform May Strain Drug Programs

Election: Prop. 36 doesn't provide enough money, some say. They also expect justice system to be affected.


SACRAMENTO — A day after California voters launched a revolution in how the state handles drug offenders, those on the front lines predicted that the change would rattle the criminal justice system and strain already overburdened treatment programs.

Passage of Proposition 36, which won Tuesday with 61% of the vote, put California in the forefront of a national movement to reform drug laws. The new law would allocate $120 million a year to treat, rather than imprison, nonviolent drug offenders.

Currently in California, nearly one in three of the state's 162,000 prisoners is serving time for a crime related to drugs.

Under the new law, which will take full effect in July, the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst expects that as many as 36,000 drug offenders a year will be diverted from prison or jail into treatment programs. An estimated 20,000 a year will qualify for help in Los Angeles County.

But experts Wednesday warned that millions of dollars more than the proposition allocates would be needed to get the program started and to pay for the oversight needed to keep participants from relapsing.

At the Los Angeles County Probation Department, officials worried about how to handle an influx of new offenders--as many as 18,000 next year alone.

"I have 44 officers supervising 33,000 people right now," said David Davies, chief of adult field services for the department. "We have no idea how we're going to handle all these new cases. It's scary."

Judges Bracing for Influx of Offenders

Los Angeles County judges also were bracing for an influx, predicting that the number of offenders diverted into treatment could increase twentyfold.

The impact will be "colossal," said Judge Michael A. Tynan. Others predicted that many people arrested for drug crimes may now demand a trial, rather than accepting a plea bargain, because they will realize that the worst punishment brought by a guilty verdict would be treatment.

Assuming that Proposition 36 gets off the ground smoothly, a person convicted of a nonviolent drug offense--first-time possession of crack cocaine, for example--might experience something like this:

The offender would go before a judge, who would set probation conditions and assign him to a treatment program tailored to his addiction. Serious cases might get residential treatment, but most would be handled on an outpatient basis.

The offender would spend up to a year in treatment, plus the potential of six months of follow-up care. If he tested positive for drugs or violated rules of the treatment regimen, a judge could sentence him to a stricter program. If the offender ultimately were judged "un-amenable" to treatment or a danger to society, he could be incarcerated for one to three years.

Although many first-time drug offenders in places such as Los Angeles currently avoid incarceration by going through special "drug courts" or other diversion programs, Proposition 36 would vastly expand the pool of those sent to treatment. It also provides a guarantee that taxpayers will help pay for addiction treatment. Today's drug courts provide some government-funded treatment but reach only about 5% of offenders.

Proposition 36 targets nonviolent offenders convicted of possessing drugs for personal use--not dealers, manufacturers or traffickers. It also mandates treatment--rather than a return to prison--for ex-convicts arrested for using drugs while on parole, providing that their original crime was not a violent one.

Following the Lead of Arizona

By approving Proposition 36, voters here followed the lead of those in Arizona, which launched a similar, though much smaller, program for low-level drug offenders four years ago. New York has also expanded its court-based diversion program for drug criminals, but California's initiative is by far the most ambitious.

"It's the single biggest leap forward we've seen," said Ethan Nadelmann, who heads a foundation in New York that advocates decriminalization of drugs.

He is also an advisor to one of the key backers of Proposition 36, New York financier George Soros, who, with two other wealthy businessmen, have bankrolled 19 drug-related ballot measures in the last four years. Of those, 17 have passed, including five on Tuesday--Proposition 36 and measures in Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Oregon.

At least one California prosecutor said the time apparently has come to overhaul a system he concedes is "nuts."

"I've been in the system 30 years. We needed something to shake it up," said Deputy Dist. Atty. David Ross, who supervises drug cases at the Van Nuys courthouse.

Others, however, warned of dire problems. One Alameda County prosecutor said the initiative had scattered "legal land mines" that would be blowing up for the next 20 years.

To handle some of the predicted problems, officials in Sacramento talked Wednesday about "cleanup" legislation to add money for drug testing, which is not funded by Proposition 36 but is considered critical to effective treatment.

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