Nearly a third of California drug offenders who volunteered for treatment under Proposition 36 were arrested on drug charges within a year of entering rehab programs, according to a study being released today.
The proposition, which was passed by California voters in 2000, changed the way the criminal justice system deals with drug offenders by extending to many the option of entering rehabilitation programs, rather than serving prison sentences.
Those arrested for selling drugs or convicted of violent crimes within the preceding five years are ineligible. Nearly 30,500 people chose rehabilitation during the first year of Proposition 36. The number rose to nearly 36,000 the following year.
The study, which appears in the current issue of the journal Criminology & Public Policy, is believed to be the first to provide recidivism data, according to UCLA researchers.
They found that Proposition 36 participants were more likely to be rearrested than those in other criminal justice programs. Thirty-one percent of offenders in Proposition 36 programs were rearrested within a year of starting treatment, compared to 18% of those in court-ordered drug treatment programs unrelated to the initiative.
Lead researcher David Farabee said he was surprised by the results.
"I would have assumed that they would be comparable to other criminal justice clients," said Farabee, a research psychologist at UCLA. "I wouldn't have assumed that the arrest rates would be significantly higher."
The evaluation was based on data from the first six months the law was in effect, beginning in July 2001. UCLA researchers focused on participation in treatment and recidivism by 688 offenders in 13 California counties who were diverted to rehabilitation rather than prison from July 1 to Dec. 31 of that year. They compared the results to that of 1,178 people being treated in other programs.
Data was collected on participants at 43 treatment centers. Records of subsequent arrests came from the state Department of Justice.
UCLA is conducting a separate, five-year study to evaluate the program statewide.
Farabee said one factor contributing to recidivism could be that some offenders with severe addictions needed intensive residential care, but were instead placed in outpatient programs. He said screening could be improved to identify those with the highest levels of addiction, as well as the homeless and mentally ill. All are factors that may increase the chance of failure.
More legal pressure could help increase the time offenders remain in treatment, Farabee said.
"There is evidence that providing closer supervision and providing more immediate sanctions ... might improve outcomes," Farabee said. "Proposition 36 tends to allow people several mistakes."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lisa Scott, who prosecutes Proposition 36 cases in Los Angeles County, said she believes the recidivism rate is even higher than 31%.
"The voters cooked up this idea," she said. "They voted to put drug offenders in rehab instead of prisons.
"Don't be surprised when drug offenders are [back] on the streets. There they are bound to get rearrested and do the things that drug offenders do."
Improvements need to be made in how the law is applied throughout California, but most of those changes would require additional funds, said Judith Appell, an attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance.
More residential programs and a more diverse range of services are required, she said. The $120 million in annual funding approved by voters four years ago will run out in 2006.
"Proposition 36 has helped thousands and thousands of people in California," Appell said. "I just don't think the first six months tells us much. The program was really new."
Mike D'Agostin, a senior supervisor at the Tarzana Treatment Center, agreed that recidivism rates could improve with more inpatient services.
"That never really came up in Proposition 36 -- the number of residential beds needed, the level of addiction of people being served in the criminal justice system," he said.
D'Agostin said treatment center representatives should be required to go to court regularly to give judges progress reports on offenders.
Del Sayles-Owen, deputy director of the state Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, said the UCLA study was limited, "just a snapshot in time."
"It is really too limited a sample and too early a look at the program to really draw any conclusions that should guide any major policy discussion at this time," she said.
Sayles-Owen said counties have changed the way they do business since the program began four years ago. Other ongoing studies of Proposition 36 should provide more comprehensive statewide data, she said.