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SANDY BANKS

A Simple 'Yes' or 'No' Can't Ease Ugly Grip of Drugs

October 22, 2000|SANDY BANKS

It sounds like a simple choice: treatment or incarceration. Approve Proposition 36 next month and we help drug addicts get well. Vote against it and we keep sending them to jail.

We can line up one way or the other on the ballot measure and resolve this messy drug abuse problem . . . just as we sent "three strikes" to cut crime, and dispatched Proposition 187 to uncrowd our schools.

This is what politics in California has become--a one-word referendum on social issues. We make policy via initiative in the naive belief that even the most complicated problems can be resolved with a simple "yes" or "no" at the ballot box.

Proposition 36 has a worthy goal: fund treatment slots for thousands more addicts and make sure they get it by prohibiting judges from sending first-time offenders to jail. But it's a solution apt to fail as often as it succeeds. Because salvation can be as elusive for drug addicts as the notion of justice is for us all.

Follow me to court.

*

They call it Los Angeles County Drug Court. It's part of America's longest-running, most successful experiment with treatment in lieu of incarceration. Here is where hundreds of drug addicts in trouble with the law get a chance at redemption. The price is high--a yearlong regime of meetings, counseling, classes, drug tests. And so are the stakes--up to a year in jail for anyone who fails to graduate.

The courtroom is already crowded when Judge Stephen Marcus takes the bench.

A trio of young women, studded with hoops and tattoos, sit together on a bench. They've been ferried here from their residential rehab program to try to convince the judge they're ready to go home.

Down the row, a middle-aged woman wearing a tasteful red suit and expensive-looking jewelry sits fingering her purse, glancing anxiously toward the door where her daughter--a mother of four and decade-long drug addict--will be ushered in, handcuffed, from jail.

Behind them, a fellow who looks like a college student sits reading a novel, backpack at his feet. Along the back wall sit half a dozen young men, some lounging, others tapping their feet nervously. Latecomers are greeted heartily as they slide into their seats with a familiarity honed through months of court appearances, counseling sessions and 12-step meetings.

Many do not make it through the stringent regime--they skip out on classes, test dirty, commit new crimes or just disappear and have to be hauled back to court by police.

Some simply opt out, deciding jail is easier than treatment. "I wish I had just done my 90 days and gone home," one defiant young woman tells the judge. "This has put my whole life out of whack." She spent four months in the program, then ran off with her drug-dealer boyfriend and wound up back in jail.

Others here plead to get in. "Please," begs a handcuffed woman, fighting back tears. "I just need to get out of jail."

Sometimes, jail is the best thing that can happen to a drug addict. "For a lot of them, that's rock bottom. That's the crisis that allows us to reach them" with treatment, Marcus says.

Five hundred addicts have completed the drug court program here--and almost that many have washed out and been sent to jail. The road to recovery from drug addiction is almost always rocky, veering through treatment and relapse, again and again.

Ask the woman in the red suit. She's lost count of the number of times her daughter has tried to kick her drug habit. This time, she says, "she seemed to be doing so great. She was taking care of her kids. . . . She even gave me a surprise party for my birthday." Tears spill down her cheeks.

Mom was out of town when an old boyfriend of her daughter's showed up. "They threw a wild party, completely trashed my house," she said, her voice bitter. And just weeks away from graduation, her daughter skipped out. Now she's back in jail--and mom is here to ask the judge for one more chance.

One row away, Laura is here with her mother as well. She also knows about the demons that can lure an addict back to drugs. She'll tell you that it sometimes takes a cold bench in a crowded cell to force an addict face-to-face with who she's become.

She's done seven or eight stints in jail--drug possession and prostitution mostly--since she relapsed three years ago. She threw away eight years clean and sober for a hit on a crack pipe . . . and then another and another.

"I got back to where I didn't care anymore, about my kids, myself. But last time I was in jail, I just looked around me . . . and I felt so sick and tired. And I begged the judge to let me in this program, because I knew I needed help."

Now, she is a month away from graduation. Treatment worked for her, she says, "because it gave me tools." There was good advice--like "stay away from slippery places"--as well as the support and structure of endless meetings, the accountability of almost-daily drug testing.

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