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Longtime Addicts Test Prop. 36 Drug Treatment Effort

Hearing: Legislators are told the program was unprepared for the complex needs of the clientele.

November 15, 2001|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Four months into California's landmark experiment with treating drug offenders as patients rather than criminals, officials are scrambling to cope with a clientele that is far more severely addicted than expected.

Planners predicted that most offenders diverted into treatment under voter-approved Proposition 36 would be low-level users in need of short-term outpatient therapy.

Instead, judges and others with a role in the new system say it is beset by hard-core addicts, many of whom have multiple convictions and need help with mental health problems as well.

"These are clients who need intensive, highly structured residential treatment for a substantial period of time," said Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen V. Manley. "We simply don't have beds for them, and that's a very serious long-term problem for the state."

Manley was among two dozen witnesses at a legislative hearing Wednesday that offered the first broad assessment of Proposition 36, which triggered the most dramatic shift in criminal justice policy since passage of the three-strikes law. Approved by voters a year ago, Proposition 36 requires that nonviolent drug offenders be placed in treatment and on probation, rather than behind bars.

Backers of the groundbreaking initiative hope to place similar measures on the ballot next year in several states, so its record in California is being closely watched. Legislators also want to know whether the state's $120-million annual investment in drug treatment is paying off.

Wednesday's hearing provided no final answer to whether Proposition 36 is delivering on its ambitious promise--to reduce addiction, thin the prison population and save the state money. The first offenders only began landing in treatment in July, so it is too early for a sweeping verdict.

But experts--and recovering addicts--said the system, though still plagued by kinks, is funneling thousands of addicts into recovery.

"It has absolutely been an early success," said Chris Geiger of Walden House in San Francisco, a residential recovery program.

"It's helping me change myself into a productive person," said Jacquelyn Jones, 40, a 22-year crack addict living at Walden House. "Jail and prison only put your addiction at rest until you are released."

Though no statewide statistics are available, officials in most counties said their projections for the number of offenders receiving treatment through Proposition 36 are proving fairly accurate. The exception is Los Angeles, where the number of defendants opting for treatment is far lower than expected.

Most surprising is the proportion of offenders with a long history of drug abuse. Manley said that in Santa Clara and San Diego counties, about half of the clients have addictions spanning 10 years or more. Judges in Los Angeles report similar trends.

Under Proposition 36, offenders who go into treatment are sent to an assessment center, where officials gauge the severity of their drug problems and, in theory, assign them to appropriate treatment slots. Therein lies the problem.

In gearing up for the influx of Proposition 36 cases, county officials focused on creating outpatient slots suitable for low-level addicts. As a result, the wait for a spot in a Los Angeles-area residential treatment program can be four to eight weeks or more, said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan.

"So we have many of our most severely addicted people sitting on waiting lists, and that doesn't help anybody," said Lael Rubin, special counsel to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.

How government will expand residential treatment capacity is unclear. The state faces a budget crisis, and, as Tynan said, residential beds are "expensive, and you just can't create them overnight."

Even when funding is available, drug treatment homes invariably stir neighborhood opposition, witnesses said Wednesday.

"We consistently see 300, 400, 500 people at every hearing," Yvonne Frazier, administrator of San Mateo County's alcohol and drug programs, testified. "And there are usually about two speaking in favor."

Among the few pieces of concrete information emerging at the hearing was evidence that Proposition 36 is causing a dip in the state prison population. From July 1 through Nov. 4, the incarcerated population fell by 2,400 inmates, a drop that corrections officials attribute mostly, though not entirely, to Proposition 36.

Considering that the state spends $25,000 annually on each prisoner, "we are already starting to achieve some savings because of Proposition 36," said Dan Carson of the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

Another measure of the program came from the state parole board. Before Proposition 36, parolees who violated terms of their parole with low-level drug offenses, such as dirty drug tests, were often returned to prison.

Now, 140 parolees a week are diverted into drug treatment, and officials said most comply with such orders. Since July 1, only 31 warrants have been issued for parolees who did not follow through.

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