State drug courts face challenge from Prop. 36

The Associated Press
Thursday April 15, 2010 - 10:53:00 AM

AUBURN — It’s no coincidence that Court Commissioner Colleen Nichols holds her weekly drug court inside the Placer County Jail.  

Bailiffs pounce on offenders who test dirty for drugs, skip treatment or otherwise break her strict rules.  

They are handcuffed and sit shamefaced next to the judge’s bench. Soon, they are whisked away to serve short jail sentences _ punishment meant as the adult equivalent of being sent to sit in the corner. 

Those who stay clean, on the other hand, are rewarded with Nichols’ praise and applause from the dozens of other drug offenders waiting their turn. 

They emerge from her jammed courtroom beaming, often to hugs from their spouses or children. Most will have their records wiped clean once they complete the program.  

Drug courts stem from a realization by judges and prosecutors a decade ago that they needed a new tool to battle the crush of crack-cocaine users clogging courts and prisons, said Jeff Tauber, who presided over California's first drug court. They adopted a carrot-and-stick approach that rewards users who stay clean and punishes those who backslide, said Tauber, president of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.  

There are nearly 700 drug courts nationwide and at least 300 more are planned. They are in 48 of California's 58 counties, and the rest will have them by year’s end, said Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley, president of the California Association of Drug Court Professionals. 

The drug courts reflect a recognition by politicians, judges and prosecutors that simply jailing addicts doesn't work without treatment, Attorney General Bill Lockyer said.  

Lockyer, along with several judges and other law enforcement officials, said that effort would be harmed rather than helped by a drug treatment measure on California’s Nov. 7 ballot.  

Proposition 36 would ban incarceration for those convicted for the first or second time of being under the influence of drugs or possessing drugs for their personal use, instead sending them to treatment programs. 

The initiative, sponsored by the California Campaign for New Drug Policies, would end the short jail sentences at the heart of the drug courts’ strategy. 

Effective as they are for offenders who end up in them, drug courts by their own estimates reach just 5 percent of users, while thousands more go untreated in prisons or jails, replied Dave Fratello, campaign manager for the California Campaign for New Drug Policies. 

Proposition 36 would help drug courts by pouring $120 million a year into treatment, Fratello said.  

“We feel this will complement drug courts,” Fratello said. “There's simply more options for judges if there are more programs out there.”  

Judges can use community service or residential treatment programs instead of jail to punish offenders who test positive for drugs or skip treatment sessions, Fratello said.  

But without the threat of jail, users can walk away from community service or treatment programs, Nichols said in an interview after she finished with her 83rd and final drug offender for the day. Proposition 36 would impose one- to three-year prison sentences on those who repeatedly fail treatment by using drugs or refusing to show up for sessions, but it entails a long process so complex the initiative’s proponents use a flow chart to explain it. 

The intensity of Nichols’ supervision varies based on offenders’ drug history or the severity of their drug crime, and diminishes as offenders work through the 12- to 18-month program. 

Each undergoes periodic drug tests, regular court appearances, counseling or drug classes and self-help meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a busy schedule, and those who mess up know Nichols will immediatel order them led away in handcuffs.  


``One of the cornerstones is accountability and consequences,'' said Nichols, 

who has been running the drug court for 2 1/2 years. ``Without that, you have a 

whole group of people who have no reason to be clean and sober.''  


Participants said it is the frequent testing and threat of jail that forced them to 

stay clean.  


``It keeps you honest,'' said xxx, 22, of Roseville, who went to jail twice 

after testing positive for heroin. ``They're doing it to help you, not to punish 



xxx, 30, and xxx, 19, both of Roseville, met in a residential 

treatment program last year: ``It's a love match made in rehab,'' joked xx.  


They entered Placer County's drug court program a year ago, and are among 40 

participants scheduled to graduate next month.  


There will be more hugs and cheers, congratulations from Nichols and other 

law enforcement officials, and each graduate will get a T-shirt proclaiming: ``I 

did it and I'm proud.''  


xx and xx have both spent time in jail, and neither thinks it helped 

them with their drug problem _ except as a deterrent.  


``If people don't have sanctions, if they don't have consequences, then they 

don't have reasons not to use,'' xx said.  


Steven Belenko of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at 

New York's Columbia University, found that drug courts were more effective 

than other community treatment programs, and had lower re-arrest rates for 



He worries that Proposition 36 doesn't require any minimum length of 

treatment, unlike drug court programs that run at least a year.  


``I just don't think this kind of short-term, sporadic treatment is appropriate for 

that kind of (addicted) population,'' Belenko said.