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California might act to jail more drug offenders

A move to increase funding to anti-drug units could result in increasing the state's prison population a time when it's under order to reduce overcrowding.

August 18, 2009|Eric Bailey

SACRAMENTO — Two weeks after federal judges ordered California to reduce its prison population, an arm of the Schwarzenegger administration is set to vote on increased funding to police anti-drug units, potentially putting even more offenders behind bars.

An advisory board for the California Emergency Management Agency is expected to decide today whether to channel $33 million in federal money to narcotics task forces around the state that have proved particularly adept at apprehending drug criminals.

Critics of government drug policies say that money should instead be directed to drug-treatment programs whose funding has been sliced amid California's budget woes.

"While one side of the government is addressing prison overcrowding, another side seems to be acting directly counter to that goal," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance.

The bulk of the money is slated to help multi-jurisdictional task forces in all 58 California counties that investigate and apprehend narcotics offenders.

Money also would go to marijuana-suppression efforts around the state and the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, which coordinates with federal agents on border drug trafficking.

John Lovell, a spokesman for the California Narcotics Officers' Assn., called the Drug Policy Alliance opposition "predictable" but wrong at a time when Mexican drug cartels are boosting methamphetamine production and operating marijuana plantations in state forests, including the one blamed for starting a wildfire Aug. 8 in Santa Barbara County.

He said the spending on anti-drug task force efforts is "not only appropriate, it's too bad the amount isn't larger."

Dooley-Sammuli believes the bulk of the money would go toward generating more arrests of street-level offenders, not on cracking down on high-level drug criminals.

"We're not getting the best bang for our buck," she said.

As now envisioned, the state's anti-drug-abuse enforcement program could have its funding boosted substantially over last year, in part because of nearly $20 million in federal stimulus money allocated in July.

The Drug Policy Alliance estimates that the increase could yield 13,000 arrests during the coming year, resulting in prison time for nearly a quarter of those apprehended, at a cost of $160 million.

Funding for drug treatment programs was slashed roughly in half from $120 million two years ago.

Meanwhile, the state is grappling with pressure to reduce prison crowding.

This month, a three-judge panel ordered the state to shrink its prison population by more than 40,000 in the next two years.

Last month, legislators approved a $1.2-billion reduction in prison spending.

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eric.bailey@latimes.com

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