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Jails vs. rehab at heart of Prop. 36 issue

By Shirley Dang Special to the Daily Planet
Friday October 06, 2000

While many drug treatment providers and elected officials support Proposition 36, the state initiative to give people convicted of non-violent drug possession drug rehabilitation instead of jail time, a number of them question its feasibility. 

Over 19,000 prisoners were in California jails last year for simple drug possession, according to a June 1999 report by the State Department of Corrections. Taxpayers pay $24,000 annually per inmate. 

“We are wasting a fortune putting a lot of young people in jail for a lot of marijuana cases,” City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said. “It’s important to stop criminalizing youth and provide other options.” 

Under Prop. 36, the 25,000 people charged solely with drug possession would be diverted from prison to drug treatment programs, said Daniel Abrahamson, the initiative’s co-author and director of the legal affairs office at the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation.  

As a result, the state would save $100 to $150 million annually in prison operations, according to a legislative analyst’s report. Counties would save about $50 million due to fewer people in jail.  

Berkeley has only a small, acupuncture-based detoxification facility, Worthington said. Prop. 36 could help fund a full-fledged drug treatment center, he said.  

Another advantage of the proposition is that it would circumvent the racial biases of drug courts, which is another diversion program, said Abrahamson. These courts decide who gets drug treatment instead of incarceration for those who decide to plead guilty to possession charges. 

“The majority referred to treatment are white, while the majority of those arrested for possession are black and brown,” he said. 

Also, drug courts are only used for 3 to 5 percent of possession cases, said Dr. Peter Banys, president of the California Society of Addiction Medicine. They are of variable quality state-wide. 

Because Prop. 36 does not fund drug courts, many criminal justice groups oppose the proposition, he said. 

However, drug courts could accommodate those charged with possession along with other crimes, Banys said. 

Mayor Shirley Dean voted yes in June to a unanimously-approved City Council resolution supporting the proposed act. But after talking to doctors that work with drug courts, she said she changed her mind on the proposition. 

The new law would treat all offenders similarly, Dean said, arguing, however, that some ought to go to jail while others would best be served by treatment.  

“We need more treatment facilities,” she added. 

Initially, after the proposition’s enactment on July 1, 2001, $60 million would be appropriated to fund treatment centers. Then, beginning in Jan. 2002, $120 million would be appropriated annually until 2006. 

Some of the proponents, however, raised questions about whether the proposition could be made to work. 

Property for new drug treatment centers will be difficult to find, said Banys, explaining that residents fear that treatment centers attract addicts to their neighborhoods. 

“The biggest problem is the ‘not in my backyard’ mentality,” he said.  

The San Francisco VA Hospital was effectively blocked by the surrounding community from building a new treatment center on its own property, he said, although patients were already being treated at the hospital 75 yards away. 

“It’s impossible to open new residential treatment programs. We tried four times in the last year and failed,” said Brian Greenberg, vice president of Walden House, Inc., a state-wide drug treatment program that works closely with prisons. 

Even if new centers are built, healthcare workers are already in short supply at existing institutions, said Greenberg. In Walden House’s Central Valley location, there are 30 openings; in San Francisco, 60. 

“In the Central Valley, there is no one left to hire,” he said. 

Joan Zweben, executive director of the East Bay Community Recovery Project and the 14th Street Clinic, said staffing and real estate deficits would be difficult to conquer.  

“I don’t see a way around these problems,” she said. 

The initial $60 million could go toward attracting healthcare workers by providing higher salaries, said proposition spokesperson Scott Ehlers. 

“Salaries aren’t going to change,” said Greenberg. 

However, drug treatment providers see the proposition as a first step toward treating drug addiction as a medical problem, much like alcoholism. 

“It’s ridiculous to incarcerate people for what’s a treatable condition,” Zweben said.