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Users kicking Prop. 36, not drugs

With offenders failing to enroll in or complete treatment, the initiative is a `get out of jail free' card, critics say.

April 01, 2007|Jack Leonard and Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

The most comprehensive assessment of California's landmark effort to treat drug users rather than jail them has found that nearly half of offenders sentenced under the program fail to complete rehab and more than a quarter never show up for treatment.

The high failure rates have prompted a growing number of critics to call for jail sanctions for defendants they say take advantage of the program's lack of penalties.

Voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36 in November 2000. Under the program, most people convicted of drug possession get three chances to complete rehab and kick their addictions before a judge can send them to prison.

To date, the initiative has cost California more than $600 million. By diverting thousands of nonviolent drug offenders from lockups, the measure has reduced the burden on prisons and saved the state $2.50 for every $1 spent, according to UCLA's study of Proposition 36.

So far, researchers have analyzed each of the nearly 100,000 defendants who went through the program in its first two years.

But the large number of dropouts and no-shows has led judges, researchers and treatment providers to complain that voters undoubtedly expected more for their money.

"For the lay voter, I'm sure they thought, 'If you build it they will come,' and that you would have close to probably a 75% or higher success rate," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ana Maria Luna, who leads a county committee on Proposition 36 issues. "We just haven't seen that anywhere in the state."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year demanded that judges be allowed to jail defendants for short stints if they continue to use drugs or fail to enroll in treatment.

In response, Proposition 36 supporters sued Schwarzenegger and temporarily blocked the governor's proposal. Now the governor is proposing to cut the program's funding.

'Critical juncture'

The stakes are high. For critics, Proposition 36 cannot succeed because it lacks meaningful sanctions to motivate defendants. For supporters, jail terms, however short, would signal a shift away from treating drug use as a health problem and funding cuts would reduce success rates. They argue that to improve the program, the state should spend more to ensure treatment beds are immediately available.

"We're at a critical juncture," said Dave Fratello, a Santa Monica-based campaign consultant and one of Proposition 36's authors. "With every year of declining results, you'll see reduced funding and hostile changes to the program. It'll become unrecognizable."

High failure rates are typical among drug treatment programs, but many judges and law enforcement officials say too few defendants appear to take Proposition 36 seriously.

Indeed, some offenders admit they view the program as a "free pass."

"Every time I'd get arrested ... [I knew] I've got three more chances coming to jail," Alexander Santillan said in a November interview inside Los Angeles County Jail.

Santillan, 24, was convicted in three drug possession cases and remained free under Proposition 36. He said he treated jail after each new arrest as a chance to recuperate before hitting the streets again.

"When I got out, I just didn't want to do nothing but get loaded," he said.

Santillan ran out of chances last year and was sentenced to a year behind bars. He was released early because of jail overcrowding and returned weeks later, accused of car theft. He pleaded no contest and is serving a 16-month prison term.

UCLA researchers, who are evaluating the law as part of a state contract, have recommended that courts better supervise offenders with long rap sheets or move them out of the program.

Their study found that some Proposition 36eligible defendants -- less than 2% -- racked up so many arrests that their costs to the state were 10 times more than the average Proposition 36 defendant.

"Some people, quite frankly, don't belong in Prop. 36," Angela Hawken, a UCLA research economist, told state lawmakers last month at a budget hearing. "They're going to fail. They're going to keep failing. We're wasting our money. And we're really ... putting our community in jeopardy by having them on the streets."

Last year, the Legislature passed a law allowing judges to jail first-time violators for two days and second-time violators for five days. The changes also gave judges the ability to jail offenders they deem incorrigible for up to 30 days or throw them out of the program.

The move angered supporters of Proposition 36, who said it undermined an initiative that has helped tens of thousands of people beat addiction. UCLA found that 78% of people who completed treatment reported being drug-free one year after their sentence and 59% had found jobs.

"Most people in recovery will have a relapse.... Isn't California fed up with our prisons being overcrowded?" said Dr. David Pating, president of the California Society of Addiction Medicine.

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