About 30% of Los Angeles County defendants sentenced to drug rehabilitation rather than prison or county jail under Proposition 36 either failed to show up or dropped out of treatment programs in the first six months the new law was in effect, officials said.
However, judges and county officials say they are pleased with the early results, considering drug users are the ones being served by California's novel sentencing program.
"The preliminary indication is that this is working," said Carol Morris Lowe, director of planning for the county Alcohol and Drug Program. "We're going to have to refine it and tweak it, but I think it's a good start."
Proposition 36, approved in 2000 by 61% of the voters, requires that nonviolent drug offenders convicted of possession, use or transportation of drugs for personal use be offered treatment and probation rather than being locked up.
The effectiveness of the law is being closely watched in other states, including Michigan, Ohio and Florida, where the proposition's authors are planning similar ballot measures.
Of the 4,329 defendants sentenced to drug-treatment programs in Los Angeles County from July 1 to year's end, 69%, or 3,008, were still receiving treatment at the end of the year, according to numbers recently made available by the Alcohol and Drug Program. A few participants had already finished their treatment by Dec. 31. Bench warrants were issued for several hundred defendants who failed to return to court.
No statewide statistics are yet available, but counties are collecting data individually. In Orange County, 67% of the 1,978 defendants referred for drug treatment were still in programs at the end of December. San Diego County reported about 54% of its 1,578 defendants still in treatment. The numbers in Ventura County were higher--81% of the 992 people referred were in programs at year's end.
Officials across the state pointed out that the statistics were preliminary.
"We'll have a much better picture of how this is all going to shake out when we have a full year of data," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ana Maria Luna, who is heading a countywide task force on the law.
The task force made several findings based on statistics from the first six months:
* Although the initiative was touted as a way to get first- and second-time offenders into treatment, the average participant has been arrested 14 times previously and has two felony and five misdemeanor convictions.
* Four of five participants are men. More than half are 36 years old and older. The racial breakdown is 36% Latino, 30% African American, 30% white, 2% Asian and 2% other.
* Fifteen percent of participants were deemed severely addicted to drugs and required residential treatment. Forty-one percent were referred to the lowest level of treatment, outpatient meetings several times a week. The bulk--44%--were assigned to day programs lasting several hours per session.
* Drug Court participation is down about 23% since Proposition 36 took effect. Drug Court participants complete a yearlong treatment program that involves frequent counseling, testing and court appearances.
Necessary Tools Lacking, Judge Says
Superior Court Judge Ellen DeShazer, who handles both Drug Court and Proposition 36 cases, said that she believes in treatment but that the ballot measure was poorly written and inadequately funded. She also said the law lacks serious sanctions and that defendants have too many chances to fail.
The proposition "doesn't give the court all the tools it needs to make it work," she said. "It's like a bark and no bite. It doesn't give you the same leverage."
In Drug Court, judges can throw noncompliant participants in jail immediately.
Elsewhere in the state, participants are more severely addicted than expected, said Del Sayles-Owen, deputy director of the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. That has created a shortage of residential beds in some counties, she said.
Despite worries in Los Angeles County that there would not be enough courtrooms or treatment centers to handle the influx of drug defendants, officials said last week that the law has put stress on county resources but not overwhelmed them.
County Probation Department Bureau Chief Dave Davies said there have been about 40% fewer defendants than anticipated participating in drug treatment.
That's partly because nearly 300 eligible defendants refused treatment, officials said. Many of them chose a short stay in county jail over drug treatment, which can last up to a year.
"It would have really strained the system had the numbers come through that we were expecting," Davies said.
But probation officers, judges and treatment providers said the county still needs more than its state-allotted $30 million to make Proposition 36 work. Additional funds could pay for more lawyers and court staff to handle cases, as well as more drug counselors and probation officers to supervise defendants, they say.