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Drug use rearrests up after Prop. 36

A UCLA study raises questions about the effectiveness of the law mandating treatment instead of jail time.

April 14, 2007|Megan Garvey and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

Convicted drug users in California are more likely to be arrested on new drug charges since Proposition 36 took effect than before voters approved the landmark law mandating drug treatment rather than incarceration, according a long-awaited study released Friday.

The state-funded study, conducted by UCLA researchers who have pored over four years of drug-related court cases, raises new questions about the effectiveness of Proposition 36 at a time when lawmakers and courts are discussing stricter requirements for defendants.

UCLA researchers tracking drug offenders found high levels of new drug arrests among those eligible in the first year of Proposition 36, which took effect in 2001. About 50% of those offenders were picked up by police within 30 months, compared with 38% of similar offenders convicted before Proposition 36.

The report notes that some increases in arrests were expected because Proposition 36 left offenders on the street who would have previously served time.

But the research also underscores the difficulty the state has experienced in getting drug offenders into treatment and out of trouble.

Only about 25% of the defendants who are sentenced to drug treatment complete the programs. And data released Friday show that even among those who complete drug treatment, more than four in 10 had new drug arrests within 30 months of their Proposition 36 convictions.

The numbers are worse for those who don't finish drug treatment. Researchers were surprised to find that those who failed to show up for rehab were less likely to be rearrested than those who went to some treatment but dropped out: 55% compared with 60%.

Supporters of Proposition 36 said the report shows how hard it is to treat a chronic disease like drug addiction but argue that the obvious conclusion is that more intensive treatment services are needed.

But critics, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, believe that the initiative needs to be overhauled and have advocated adding jail sanctions for participants who relapse.

UCLA researchers said their study shows the measure has helped tens of thousands of drug users complete treatment but needs more money to improve supervision and intensify treatment.

"We have a lot of serious addicts in Proposition 36, and a lot of them are warehoused in treatment that's not appropriate for their needs," said Angela Hawken, a UCLA researcher who worked on the study.

"It needs tightening up, even though it really has been a major improvement over what was done before. We face a major prison crisis in this state, and if we're going to get this law to help us, we need to improve it."

The UCLA researchers have spent the last four years examining about 200,000 Proposition 36 cases, providing the first long-range look at how defendants fared after their initial sentences. The review released Friday tracked 44,000 defendants sentenced from July 2001 through June 2002.

The data showed lower rates of new arrests for property crimes among those who finished treatment, nearly 10% compared with about 17% of defendants who dropped out of the program. Arrests for violent crimes were low for all groups. Overall, the report found Proposition 36 had no direct effect on crime trends.

The report will probably be a factor in budget talks in Sacramento, where Schwarzenegger has proposed a $25-million cut to the program. The researchers instead called for at least $79 million more in funds to increase supervision of defendants and address treatment shortages.

The report also highlighted disparities, with young Latino males far less likely than other groups to enter long-term residential treatment. In addition, few Proposition 36 defendants received narcotic-replacement therapy, such as methadone, despite widespread evidence that it is effective in helping addicts.

The findings come as Schwarzenegger and other critics are seeking to add sanctions to the program in an effort to encourage more offenders to complete their treatment.

Repeated studies, including the most recent, show that of the nearly 50,000 people sentenced under the proposition each year, nearly a third do not report for treatment. Of those who do enter rehab, about two-thirds fail to complete it.

Last year, Schwarzenegger signed a law that made it easier for judges to exclude some offenders while adding jail sanctions for those who relapse.

But supporters of Proposition 36 warn that adding jail stints would signal a shift away from treating drug addiction as a health problem, arguing that voters in 2000 backed treatment, not jail. They sued the governor and won an injunction temporarily blocking last year's reforms from being implemented.

Margaret Dooley, Proposition 36 coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the latest assessment shows that any cuts to funding by Schwarzenegger are "absolutely the wrong way to go."

"If he had any doubt about that," said Dooley, whose group has been a principal backer of the law, "I hope this clears that up."

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