Rush on to implement Proposition 36

The Associated Press
Friday November 10, 2000


SAN FRANCISCO — California, which jails more drug users per capita than any other state, now quickly must implement the most ambitious drug treatment program in U.S. history. 

Passage of Proposition 36, a sweeping initiative requiring treatment instead of jail or prison for a projected 36,000 drug users each year, thrusts California into mostly uncharted territory. 

But as counties rush to make the change by July 1, they can learn from San Francisco, which has bucked the state for years by diverting nonviolent drug offenders into treatment, and Arizona, where voters approved a similar initiative four years ago. 

Arizona hands out movie and sporting event tickets and hosts picnics for drug offenders who complete treatment programs – anything to reward them for staying clean with the threat of jail no longer hanging over their heads. 

“It’s changed the whole way in which we kind of play the game,” said Barbara Broderick, Arizona’s state director of adult probation. “Now that you have this law, you really have to embrace it and figure out how to make an incentive-based program work without the hammer.” 

The bad news is that will cost money — lots of it, and likely much more than the $120 million a year allocated by Proposition 36. The good news is in projections that much of the cost will eventually be offset because treatment is cheaper than building and operating prisons. 

Bill Zimmerman, executive director of California Campaign for New Drug Policies and the man who directed the initiative drive, on Thursday called on the Legislature to come up with more cash for drug testing and for county probation departments that suddenly will be in the business of monitoring thousands of offenders and their treatment. 

That shouldn’t be a tough sell, Zimmerman said, given that 61 percent of California voters favored the proposition. 

“I’m sure every elected official in the state is going to want to stand with the 61 (percent) and not the 39 (percent who opposed it), and get this implemented,” he said. 

Gov. Gray Davis and Attorney General Bill Lockyer already are promising to work with an initiative they once opposed. 

Both Arizona and San Francisco faced an immediate crunch in finding enough treatment providers — and their experience will be eclipsed by California. 

Arizona had to find just 4,000 new treatment slots to handle about 6,000 offenders each year. California will have six times as many offenders, and its existing community treatment programs already have long waiting lists. 

San Francisco still can’t find enough treatment slots five years after District Attorney Terence Hallinan made it his policy to funnel many drug offenders into treatment programs. His office handles 8,000 felony drug arrests each year, 60 percent of its caseload. 

Proposition 36 devotes $60 million for a crash effort to create, expand and license enough treatment providers to handle the flood that will start July 1. 

“Six months really isn’t enough time, so we’re really going to have to start as best we can,” warned Hallinan.  

Even given San Francisco’s five-year head start, he said, “right now what we have is a drop in the bucket.” 

Mimi Silbert, president and CEO of the Delancey Street Foundation, San Francisco’s largest treatment provider and the nation’s largest privately funded treatment program, worries California mistakenly will turn to quick-hit treatment programs in its rush. 

“There’s always pressure to come up with a quick fix. It’s a complex issue and it requires a complex solution,” Silbert said. “The danger is to jump in quickly, to make the assumption that because they’re not going to jail their problem is solved.” 

Both treatment programs and probation departments now will have to deal with the sort of incorrigible drug addicts who had been shuttled off to prison, said K. Jack Riley, director of the Rand Corp. criminal justice department that has studied both Proposition 36 and Arizona’s experience. 

“We’re finding that 25 percent of people sentenced to probation are thumbing their nose at the system,” said Maricopa County Special Assistant District Attorney Barnett Lotstein, whose jurisdiction includes Phoenix. “People are walking away from treatment.” 

Without the threat of jail, Arizona has tried punishing offenders with more frequent court appearances, treatment sessions, community service — “We’ll even have them read books and give book reports in open court,” said Broderick. “We’ve tried to be very creative with our sanctions.” 

San Francisco has tried the sort of experiments Proposition 36 proponents say will have to be copied by counties across California. 

Its “mentor diversion court” for 18- to 25-year-old small-time drug dealers combines intense supervision with a requirement that participants work toward a high school diploma and attend college classes. 

Yet, in three years barely 200 drug offenders have participated. And though the idea was that each offender would have his own mentor, there aren’t enough mentors to go around. 

The problem, again, is money. 

“I’ve always had money for putting people in jail, but I’ve never had money for providing treatment,” Hallinan said. “Money is the key.” 

He and Silbert are optimistic Proposition 36 will provide enough money to eventually meet demand. 

Hallinan, who bills himself as “America’s most progressive district attorney,” has been sharply criticized by newspapers, political opponents and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown for emphasizing treatment over incarceration. Hallinan was the only one of California’s 58 district attorneys to publicly back Proposition 36. 

Now that it’s law, however, he and other supporters fear there will be a backlash by opponents. 

San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey, a supporter of treatment programs, warns that some drug offenders are going to commit headline-grabbing crimes while they are undergoing treatment. 

“You will have spectacular failures, and you can’t scuttle your approach because of those failures,” Hennessey said. “You have people who are philosophically opposed (to Proposition 36) and they are looking for the failures to fan the flames of law-and-order.”